Early Settlements Road Trip
Early Settlements Drive-Houston, November, 2003
by Wendi Lundquist
In some ways the object of getting out of town is simply getting out of town and away from all the neon signs and billboards and fast food places that accompany life in the big city, so the quickest and most direct is usually the best answer. For this trip, we took I-35 south to Highway 171 in Hillsboro. We set out to find an alternative to and from Houston, as I-45 can be intolerable, and what we found in the process is a storehouse of history that focuses mostly on the original Anglo immigration into Texas, and the incredible challenges these people faced. They were from Kentucky or Tennessee, some were Czech some German, some were plantation owners, and all shared an unruly and stubborn resolve that facilitated their survival on land that several different tribes of Indians owned, at war with one another and at war with invaders. Like the enticing Sirens' song, which Ulysses only resisted by tying himself to the mast of his ship, Texas, it seems, was alluring and coveted by everyone who saw her.
Highway 171 winds through the towns of Bynum, Hubbard, and Coolidge. This part of the drive follows a narrow, curving path through mostly residential areas, with very little room for a view of the prairies beyond them, and if a photograph or sketch could render it in its entirety, it would look like a patchwork quilt. Each little lot of land is so different from the next: piles of rusting scrap metal, primary colored plastic children's toys, a slobbering pit bull defiant at the end of his chain, an assortment of once-operating mechanical devices from fishing boats to lawnmowers to the cab of a pickup. And then in the midst of all this variance stands the pink or yellow or blue, freshly painted two-story with a porch swing and perfectly manicured lawn; its posture and mere existence smirking with derision at the adjacent patches on the quilt.
We drifted through Tehuacana, TX six miles northeast of Mexia. The town was named for the Tawakoni Indians who inhabited this area until the 1840's when white settlers began to stake their claims. This region once witnessed the brutal scalping of nearly fifty Tawakoni heads in 1830 when Cherokees attacked, led by Chief John Smith. The previous year, the Tawakonis caught several Cherokees trying to steal their horses, and they scalped them and tied their bodies to posts, performing a war dance around them. This bloody fight near Mexia was the result of Cherokee outrage and a desire for revenge. During the battle, the Cherokees had to fall back and hold a council as their difficulties penetrating the fortress that concealed the Tehuacanas were beginning to sting of defeat. In Indian Depredations in Texas , J.W. Wilbarger describes the Cherokees' strategic siege:
The old warrior who advised holding the consultation made the following proposition: That a party of them should go a short distance off and cut some dry grass; that they load themselves with this grass, which would be a good shield, and then approach each hole in the fortress from the sides, and stop up the port holes with this grass. This they would set on fire, and they would in this way roast the inmates alive. The plan was agreed on and carried out. The smoke and flame rolled into the fortress in such quantities as to produce complete strangulation, and the inmates were forced to unroof the fortress and leap out amid the blinding columns of smoke. The Cherokees were stationed around, and slew them as they leaped out. The Cherokees would rush on the frightened and smothered Tehuacanas, and with their tomahawks and scalping knives they dealt death on every hand. A great number of warriors, women and children were suffocated to death on the inside. Many of the women and children were made prisoners, and but few of the men escaped. All the horses, buffalo skins, camp equipage, etc. fell into the hands of the Cherokees, who returned to their camp, making a wonderful display of their booty.
With a humble population of about 300 today, Tehuacana's land has not been so paved and trodden as to completely cover the fiery remnants of its history. And the Tawakoni tribe was one of many who moved out of Texas to the Wichita Reservation in Oklahoma, leaving behind only its name.
We continued to wind through Limestone County, from Hwy 171 to 14 to 39, until we came upon Molina's Restaurant and Tortilleria in Mexia, TX. If you're anywhere near the vicinity, even 9 a.m. is a good time to stop for a taco. This place is worth the trip. A modest building with folding table and chairs and linoleum floors, Molina's has an elaborate menu, stenciled onto a giant rectangular piece of metal and nailed to the wall. There is a seemingly endless list of breakfast plates and tacos and authentic Mexican especialidads for lunch. Several workers stopped in to fill their stomachs and their ice chests, church families stopped by to pick up some homemade tortillas for lunch, and a few locals came inside to exchange a few stories with the other patrons or to eat. There are shelves of candy for sale and a pretty big selection of beverages in several reach-in coolers, both American and Mexican favorites. The waitress was friendly, and we left there feeling like we'd unveiled a scandalous secret. We took a picture of the sign in front of this humble place, and even now, a glance at the picture or the mere mention of those tacos causes a smile to creep involuntarily across our faces. These are the things I've missed by taking I-45 down to Houston.
One of the prominent figures in the history of this area is a man who wore many hats. Atlanta lawyer Lochlin Johnson Farrar moved to Limestone County in 1859 to practice law in Springfield. By 1861, he was living in a hotel, with no land to his name, and his personal property was worth a mere three hundred dollars. He formed The Limestone County Volunteers, a company that joined forces with the Twelfth Texas Cavalry for service in the Civil War. Farrar then served the Confederacy in the Red River Campaign, when the Union attempted to seize access to Texas, and all her exported cotton, via the Red River in Louisiana. Farrar worked in later years as a schoolteacher, a state senator, a judge, and a member of the House of Representatives. It's striking how in the days of the Texas pioneers one man could rise and answer the call to leadership, like the point in the arrow-shaped formation of a flock of geese in flight. Forward the settlers flew, unified by their persistence and their desire to prosper, and facing turbulence in many forms, their ranks significantly thinned by the Civil War and by their fights with Indians.
Sixteen miles out of Mexia, at the junction for Highway 164 west, lies the marker for Personville. The roadside monument gives a few names and dates, but it could be summarized as follows: here lies a tiny town whose population began with 30 people, rose to 300 at its most prosperous time, and was recorded as 20 within the last ten years, at which time they had one church, one school, and one cemetery. Personville it seems has maintained the anonymity and solitude that its name suggests. Hwy 164 will take you to Parker's Fort (also called, interchangeably, Fort Parker) in Groesbeck, but we continued south on 39 to North Gulch.
Our route down Hwy 39 crosses the Old San Antonio Road, which at one time connected two Spanish missions between Nacogdoches and San Antonio. We passed through the tiny town of Flynn, where the roadside held three quick signs painted on posterboard and faded from sunlight and rain. "Flynn Grocery and Feed." "Good Feed Ahead." "Stop Here." And eventually we came upon a serene stretch of road just before Highway 90, where the Texas Brazos Trail and the Independence Trail intersect. The trees formed a canopy overhead, just like the drive down Silver Creek Road. Cows lounged in the thick grass, legs folded underneath their stout bodies. Where just a few miles behind us, sparsely populated towns cast their lots at the entrepreneur's game, here only nature revealed its existence, and it was idle and still.
We worked our way through Grimes County in the shape of a lightning bolt, taking Highway 39 to 90 through Singleton, Roans Prairie, and finally Anderson. Two separate mail routes, one connecting Houston with Springfield and the other connecting Nacogdoches with San Felipe de Austin, formed an X where today's Anderson, TX now stands. Back in 1834, Henry Fanthorp built a two-room log house for himself and his wife Rachel. They added more rooms to the building and it became the Fanthorp Inn, drawing its customers from those who traveled the two stage lines in and out of Grimes County, and the Inn also functioned as a post office when mail came through the area. The final vice president of the Republic of Texas was Kenneth L. Anderson, who died at the Fanthorp Inn and for whom the town and center of Grimes County was ultimately named.
The Anderson area was also host to a Confederate gun factory during the Civil War. Originally from North Carolina, J.H. Dance and his two brothers moved to Brazoria County and started a company that manufactured a total of less than 400 colt-pattern revolvers, making the Dance pistol one of the rarest and most prized finds for antique gun collectors. The Dances sold their company to the Confederacy when they suffered from a lack of investors. The factory was then established just a few miles north of Anderson, and the last shipment of 25 Dance revolvers arrived in Houston in April, 1865. After this final batch of six-shooters was manufactured and delivered, the Dance brothers quit the gun business and built gristmills and cotton gins. A photograph of Geronimo, perhaps the most famous Apache tribesman, shows one of these cherished dance revolvers at his side.
The center of Grimes County saw prosperous growth, and businesses succeeded, but this rosy hue of optimism did not shield this area from Indian attacks. None it seems were completely immune, and for some who lost their lives, it was merely a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Such was the fate of John Taylor, who lived in the area that is now Anderson. In 1836, he crossed paths with a raiding band of Indians who chased and killed him then mutilated his body. Delusional with grief and against the better judgment of all her neighbors and kin, his wife visited the spot where her husband was murdered, and she too lost her life to the Indians.
We drove down Farm Road 1774 through Plantersville and into Magnolia, just inside Montgomery County. The town was first called Mink Prairie, then Mink in 1850. Next, the town was named Melton after a prominent landowner, but the postal workers were confusing it with Milton, TX. Finally, an abundance of magnolia trees in the area inspired the townspeople to agree on the name Magnolia. Like many regions in the early settlements of Texas, Montgomery County's history is characterized by the kind of rises and falls of epic proportions that provide the plots for movies and novels. The French were here in the 1600's and they recorded the presence of various tribes of Atakapan Indians. These tribes believed, poetically, that the first humans arose inside an oyster shell out of the ocean. These metaphorical pearls then must have had a great reverence for how valuable and how rare life is. It seems a contradiction to me, then, that the name of this tribe is a Choctaw word that means "man eaters." They believed that a man who was eaten by another man would have no afterlife, so perhaps they only practiced cannibalism to exact ultimate punishment on their enemies, to steal their lives and their hope for any further life. The Atakapan tribes blended with other tribes through intermarriage, and many died of the diseases that accompanied the European explorers; thus they soon faded out of existence.
Whites from Kentucky and Tennessee came next into Montgomery County, transforming the land from the free range of a hunting and gathering tribe of cannibals to the new rigid hierarchy of the plantation. Landowners prospered on profusions of cotton grown by slaves, and two of the wealthiest slave owners in Texas lived here, owning more than 100 each. Naturally, things changed when the slaves were freed and labor had to be bought. The cotton industry died out, and the railroad came through. Several major railroads crossed through the county, and they enabled the success of the lumber industry. Before the clearing began, 80 percent of the county was covered with pine forests; needless to say, the railroad brought incomparable prosperity. And so the story goes, the ups and downs continued for Montgomery County as the depression brought suffering and the oil boom, salvation. The county remains prosperous today because it brings in residents from the overflow of Houston area's suburbs.
We drove into Houston to stop for the night. I learned early in life that there is no roller coaster so thrilling, no shark tank so threatening, no free falling sky dive out of a plane so death defying as driving on the major highways in Houston, Texas. My advice to those embarking on their inaugural trek: take the peripheral roads that form circuitous loops around the city's gravitational center, and always have a plan for how you might go about abandoning your course on a few seconds' notice.
The next day, like a giant conveyor belt at an airport terminal, delivering luggage, skis, golf clubs, and crates of all shapes, the mighty Interstate 10 shuffled the DeVille westward through Katy and out of the great metropolis. We turned off at Highway 949 northeast to Farm Road 1094, and we entered arguably the most historically concentrated region in Texas, Austin County. It all began with the tenacity and vision of a father and his son. Moses Austin obtained permission from the Mexican government to bring 300 families into Texas and form a colony. He died of pneumonia before his dream could come to fruition, and in 1823, his son Stephen Fuller Austin took hold of the reins. Advertising in newspapers and spreading the word throughout the eastern states, Stephen F. Austin recruited wide-eyed and optimistic Anglo-American, German and Czech families to join him in Texas. I wonder what rhetoric could convince these men and women to embark on a harsh journey through inclement weather into a land unknown, occupied and ruled by a proud and dominant Mexico, and inhabited by Indians, who for thousands of years sustained their lives by piercing intruders' bodies with arrowheads, and they claimed trophies by slicing the scalps from their heads. They did embark, however, and Stephen F. Austin receives credit for the original Anglo settlement of Texas.
Sugarland Town Square Statue of Stephen F. Austin
Entering His First Colony
Once the frontiersmen settled in, so to speak, they began to hold meetings and organize themselves as a separate political body. They first expressed their displeasure with being ruled by Mexico in 1832 at San Felipe. In a remarkable illustration of the restlessness of the human spirit, never quite content with the status quo, they not only traveled to Texas from places as far as New York, but they stood a while, scanning the land, envisioned their houses and general stores and eventually stagecoach stations positioned strategically along creeks and paths forged by buffalo herds or even the Indians themselves, and they desired even more. They wanted a government made up of their own kind and no doubt fashioned after the one evolving in the rest of the states, so they formed two distinct entities: one to combat the Mexicans and the other, the Indians. The Republic of Texas and the Committee of Safety arose, which soon became the agency we know today as the Texas Rangers.
The capital of the Republic was originally at San Felipe, and we drove within 2 miles of it on our way into Austin County. The townspeople burned their beloved town to the ground to prevent it from falling under Mexican control in 1836, and what resulted was a fast but furious war to be remembered.
In the great dense thickets of Texas history, the year 1836 proved to be contentious and bloody to say the least. Not only did that year mark the beginning of the Texas Ranger and Indian wars, but it was also the year of the Texas War for Independence from Mexico. When General Santa Anna brought his army in from Mexico, general panic set in. News of the fall of the Alamo and the massacre at Goliad quickly spread. The majority of white settlers fled to the east in a mass exodus that was eventually named the Runaway Scrape. Sam Houston ordered what was left of his army to retreat also.
Each family who stayed behind in a stubborn show of resolve was like one lone duck in the middle of a pond, ostentatiously vulnerable to Indian attacks while the military headed down to fight the Mexican army at San Jacinto. One family of German settlers who refused to run suffered a fate similar to that of the Parker family. In the midst of all the chaos, and exploiting the fear that Santa Anna's attempted conquest was creating, a raiding band of Karankawa Indians appeared at the homestead of Conrad and Mary Theresa Juergens. The Indians wounded Conrad and abducted a pregnant Mary Theresa and two of her step-sons. While a captive, she gave birth to Jane Margaret. Mother and infant survived their few months of captivity and were eventually ransomed. Conrad died within two years of the attack. Unlike that of Cynthia Ann, Mary Theresa's experience was short lived, and she was not with the Indians long enough to become acclimated to their way of life. The monument recounting the Juergens family's experience is in present day New Ulm, "the small town with a big heart."
At its conception, New Ulm was a German settlement, named for Ulm, Germany by Austin's original settlers. We stopped at New Ulm's Texas Star Café for breakfast. A parking lot full of cars and trucks is always a good indication that the food will be alright. It seems this is the place to eat in town, and everyone inside knew each other's name.
From New Ulm, we turned slightly south and headed down Farm Road 1291 to Fayetteville, which was a stage station on the Old San Felipe Trail at its inception. James J. Ross first established the station and subsequently the town, and his is a story of Austin's original 300 that is as colorful as any you'll find. To begin, Ross liked women, and it seems that this affinity was the cause of most of his trouble. He married Mariah Cummins in Arkansas in June 1821, and she might have believed she was his first wife. A year later, he went to trial on charges of bigamy, and proceeded with a divorce from a woman named Sinthia. He arrived in Texas the following year and quickly gained esteem as a landowner, farmer, and a captain in Austin's militia. He was a leader in the protection of the frontier, and he presided over several attacks on the Tawakoni and Waco tribes. Just 5 years after his arrival in Texas, a new scandal developed. It seems that Ross and his wife's younger sister Nancy were expecting a child. His marriage to Mariah fell apart, and he married her sister in 1828, just after he bought a league and a half of land in Fayette County. He built his home there, had four more children, and founded the town of Fayetteville. But the scandal doesn't end there. Ross' notoriety mounted when settlers learned that he provided shelter for some Tonkawa Indians on his land. The shootout that resulted from this discovery cost him his life. What he left behind is clear: a legacy of a true frontiersman, the type who cannot be subdued by social constraints but will boldly make his contribution to what he perceives as the aggregate good. While his story is slightly humorous, it is inarguably heroic.
Another of Austin's original immigrants alone confronted a band of marauding Indians and lived to tell the story. The account seems hard to believe, but perhaps the Indians were so stunned by his unmitigated rage and temerity that they let him live. As the story goes, Jesse Burnam lived right along the Colorado River and raised horses on the prairie. In broad daylight, one of Burnam's children witnessed the theft of all his horses and ran into the house to report the news. Jesse was bedridden with fever, but according to the story, he was so outraged at the Indians' audacity that he grabbed his gun, saddled his horse, and headed out to find them. The enraged Burnam charged into the pack, shouting wildly as he fired his shotgun. If we can call it a strategy, it worked; the horses took off toward their familiar grazing land and Burnam let 'em have it with both barrels, as the saying goes. The Indians abandoned their chase, and he returned home without a single horse lost. We could say that he was mad with fever, but his story nevertheless creates a great tangible manifestation of the tenacious frontier spirit, the same spirit that said " What the heck, we'll give this wild unsettled land a try" in the first place.
We drove through Fayetteville's town square, and I noticed mostly Bed & Breakfast signs and antique stores. This area prides itself in having the best antique shopping in Texas, sitting right in the middle of the "golden triangle" that connects Houston, Austin, and San Antonio. They have a well-preserved, beautiful town square, and a signs entices visitors to "buy granite pieces of Fayetteville history."
We turned northeast onto 237 toward Round Top, passing the Sterling McCall Car Museum just before we entered the town. McCall started collecting old cars in 1979 when a 1927 Ford Model T Doctors Coupe rolled into his dealership, offered as a trade for a brand new Corolla. He took the Model T, a 1941 Buick, and a 1948 Lincoln Continental (both convertibles) to his farm, where he built garages in which to store them. His collection of classics grew enough to warrant the opening of a museum, and thus the Sterling McCall Museum was born, located just a few miles outside of Round Top.
On the front page of the community's website, a photograph of the road sign reads "Round Top pop. 77" and printed over it in bold letters "Who would have thought a town of 77 could offer the world so much to do?" As we drove through town, spotting well decorated Bed and Breakfasts and antique shops, large artfully painted signs announcing the historical museum and the chamber of commerce building, which is a tiny one-room structure with a desk and a phone and a rack filled with pamphlets about area attractions, it became quite obvious to me that the main focus here in Round Top, TX is tourism. All seventy-seven of them it seems participate in some way in hospitality or the promotion of Round Top's history, which is of course connected with Austin's Original 300. The town was comprised at first of white plantation owners dating back to 1826, and in the next ten to fifteen years, German settlers followed. The area was situated along a stagecoach route, and "the house with the round top" became a mileage marker along the way. Thus, the town came to be called Round Top.
Two structures in Round Top remind its 77 residents of the town's origin, the Konrad Joh Log Cabin and the Old "Sam Lewis Stopping Place," which is now a University of Texas Research Center. The Joh family's log cabin was built in 1848 of live oak logs, mud, sand, and straw. In 1875, Konrad Joh used oxen to move the cabin uphill three hundred feet, where it stands today. Sam Lewis and his family occupied a cabin of cedar, which began as a two-room house and was enlarged to accommodate travelers from the stagecoach that passed through town. Lewis, his wife, and eight children welcomed frontiersmen and women who needed a meal and a place to sleep while the horses rested overnight. A roadside marker in Round Top's town square marks the memory of such frontier inns as this one, where strangers were welcome to share a family's meal, and mail could be received and circulated in the area. Now, 150 years later, Round Top's residents proudly emulate the hospitality of the settlers, their artfully decorated signs drawing drivers in, offering the world so much to do.
We merged from Highway 290 onto 390, where we entered Burton, a modest town in Washington County. We sidled around Lake Somerville and traced a segment of Yegua Creek, a Spanish name that means mare, where the rural scenery is postcard worthy. We were not able to resist a visit to Dime Box, TX while we were in the neighborhood. In his book Blue Highways , William Least Heat-Moon describes his drive through Dime Box in the 1970's, having selected it for its curious name. He eats a meal of ham and beans and gets a haircut for $1.50 in what he describes as a "three-street town." A woman at the post office explains the source of the town's name. The townspeople would drop a letter and ten cents into the box for outgoing mail. Thus, the town came to be named for its primitive postal system.
It's truly a quiet town today, with a population of about 400. Actually, this unpretentious place enjoyed a quick promenade in the national limelight in 1945 when one hundred percent of its citizens sent dimes to President Franklin Roosevelt for the March of Dimes campaign. Aptly suited to its calling, Dime Box, TX was the first to fulfill the President's request. We drove through in just a few moments, and as we did, I wondered how the town has changed since Heat-Moon sat at a lunch counter drinking an RC cola and eating ham in a four-calendar café while the patrons debated on the best method for killing "far ants."
Highway 141 ends at 21, where Old Dime Box once rested, the town's original location before railroad tracks arrived. This segment of Highway 21 traces The King's Highway ( El Camino Real ), also called the Old San Antonio Road. Buffalo herds and Indian hunters originally forged the path that spanned 1,000 miles from Mexico City to Natchitoches, Louisiana. In this region, where the Old San Antonio Road crosses the Brazos River, Highway 21 draws the line that created the northern boundary for Stephen F. Austin's colony, separating it from Sterling Robertson's colony to the north.
A little further northeast on 21 lies the roadside marker for an arm of the Chisholm Trail, used for cattle drives from Texas to Kansas. This particular arm of the trail spans from Matagorda County, along the Gulf coast, to McGregor, just southwest of Waco. The Chisholm Trail was invaluable to the cattle industry until the 1870's when the railroad reached this region.
We reached Caldwell where the parking lot of Jake's Restaurant was filled to overflowing with cars and pickups. This town was named for a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence, Mathew Caldwell. He was nicknamed "Old Paint" because he grew a speckled beard. Caldwell served as captain of a ranger company and fought Indians to reserve the early settlements for whites coming in from the eastern states. He fought in the famous battle of Plum Creek, when the Comanches set out to avenge the wounds they suffered from the Council House Fight, in present day Lockhart, which is located in the county that bears his name.
Just a few miles east of Caldwell on Highway 21 sits the site of Fort Tenoxtitlan, which was originally a Mexican fortress against white immigration. The name is an Aztec word that means "Prickly Pear Place," also the name given to Mexico City. The Mexicans believed this location would be the capital of Texas, but they could not squelch the fiery spirit of the whites, who continued to populate the area in spite of Mexico's attempted line of defense. Mexican General Mier y Teran commanded the army at Tenoxtitlan, and when he became despondent over the realization that the whites would not be ruled, he committed suicide by falling on his sword. They abandoned the fort in 1832, and whites subsequently used it as a fortress in Indian fights and a trading post for the next few years.
We drove northwestward on Highway 36 into Milam County, crossing through Milano along the way toward Little River. In 1839, the Texans won far too costly a victory over the Comanches along this river in Milam County. Captain John Bird was in command of fifty rangers when he encountered twenty Comanche hunters. These original twenty soon multiplied into two hundred as Bird's company relentlessly, and unwisely, pursued them for many miles. An even more grave error in judgment caused him to turn and retreat, giving the Comanches their opportunity to pursue and strike. Racing on horseback amidst a violent shower of arrows, Bird found shelter where he and his men could dismount and fire their rifles. The Comanches soon left the bloody Rangers to tend to seven who were dying, one of whom was Captain Bird. The battle is now known as "Bird's Victory," although clearly the Comanches were the authors of this fate.
Our drive out of Burleson and into Milam County also crosses the thickets of Battleground Prairie, along the edge of Cedar Creek. In 1844, a mile wide area of the prairie was awakened by the battle cries of Colonel Oldham's company of about thirty whites, and a group of about eight Indians. The Indians first encountered a few of Milam County's citizens, and both determined their numbers were too few to chance a fight. The Indians turned back, and Colonel Oldham raised his company and went out in pursuit. They came upon the Indians while they were cooking terrapins over a fire. Dashing to their weapons, the Indians headed to the creek bottom while Oldham's men dispatched a couple of hounds to track them. The clever tribesmen buried themselves into a patch of soft sand so their bodies would be shielded from bullets, and they successfully held off their opponents. Two of the white men, a Mr. Reed and Mr. Bingham did not survive this skirmish, and they are buried in Yellow Prairie, Burleson County. The prairies are quiet today, though they still have that wild, unruly visage that signifies the memory of those sanguinary times.
From Cameron, we headed north on Highway 77 to 485 east to Farm Road 2027, painstakingly following the roads that trace the Brazos River. We drove past Falls on the Brazos Park, and this is arguably the prettiest section of the river. While Stephen F. Austin's original settlers were busily claiming the land south of the Old San Antonio Road, Sterling Robertson's settled north of that line, and our road trip runs through these early settlements, all the way up to Falls County. In the winter of 1839, only two families and their extended relatives lived in this region along the Falls of the Brazos, the Morgans and the Marlins. The house of George Morgan functioned as an unofficial fort where families surrounding his home could seek refuge during an Indian attack, and it is now named Morgan's Point. Several members of both families congregated there on the evening of New Year's Day when Indians entered the "fort" without a second's prior notice. This war party was comprised of Caddos, Ionis, Anadarkos and Kichais who were lead by Chief Jose Maria on a mission to keep the whites out of the area they couldn't stand to lose, and as it is still one of the most scenic parts of Texas, who could blame their resolve? All but one of the inhabitants inside Morgan's home were tomahawked and scalped. Stacy Ann Marlin, the one who survived, was wounded, and even though she pretended to be dead, the Indians did not take her scalp. The children had been outside in the yard, so they were able to hide and remain undetected by their parents' assailants. Isaac Marlin was the first of the children to reach the Marlin home, seven miles away from Morgan's Point, and it took him all night to do so. Two others arrived at daylight, and finally the severely wounded Stacy Ann arrived at noon. The Indians returned ten days later with a party of seventy warriors to attack the Marlin home, but they withdrew after seven of their own were killed by those inside whose lust for vengeance ensured their survival.
It would perhaps seem a simple decision to those of us who hear about their circumstances today, but those few survivors of the Morgan and Marlin families pondered whether to drop back to a more populated area in the lower settlements or to fight the Indians and establish their ownership of Falls County once and for all. I can say with certainty which I would have done, and because we know that spirit that brought the first Anglo frontiersmen and women into Texas in the first place, we also know which they chose. Then it was the norm, but today we only see that kind of wild courage in the most reckless of gamblers, or the sword swallowers and lion tamers in circus acts. They had only their lives to lose, but they also knew the highest of stakes at which they would pay, since death could mean the stinging wounds of eleven arrow heads into one's chest and arms or the slicing off of one's tender scalp while he draws his last few torturous breaths. It could mean the capture of one's children and the theft of all his livestock and property. But like the truest and winningest of gamblers, the response inevitably was, look at what's to be won . These Texas prairies, intricately laced together with the creeks that stem from the Brazos, were a prize worth the egregious possibilities of murder.
So the few who congregated at Marlin's house decided to raise a militia and pursue the Indians. Forty-eight responded to this desperate call to arms. The resulting battle occurred on a field just a few miles north of Marlin on Highway 6. According to one account, Chief Jose Maria perceived that the Texans were winning the fight, so he began to withdraw his warriors from the field. The Texans, too quickly assuming their probable victory, dissembled and carelessly abandoned the command of Captain Benjamin Bryant, who came up from Bryant's Station to lead the militia. The astute warriors immediately sensed the chaos among their ranks, and with wild cries they charged back into the battlefield and ultimately won the day.
The Falls County area did not serve as a permanent area of residence for any Indian tribes until the Cherokees settled there in the 1830's. Then, Robertson's white settlers were also building homes on those prairies, so they live relatively amicably alongside one another for a few years. The tribes who deplored the influx of whites to the region were those who, for hundreds of years, used it as a prized hunting ground. Even today, the region's best asset is its land, and then it was invaluable to the tribes for its stock of wild game. The Marlins and the Morgans had their own blood out there on the table, rolled the dice, and through an eventual treaty with Jose Maria's coalition, they won the lion's share. Our jagged drive along the Brazos sets a beautiful scene of the river's landscape in the foreground and the dramatic scenes from its history in the background.
After passing the Indian Battlefield, where a highway marker now sits as a reminder, we drove on Highway 6 through Waco and picked up 933 northwest toward Lake Whitney before reaching home. We passed the historic Fort Graham Cemetery, which was fortunately left intact when others were destroyed in the production of Lake Whitney. Fort Graham was built to protect the region from Indian attacks, but it served more as a hub of communications between other Texas forts. It also created a vantage point along the north-south line that connected the Towash Indian village (along the Brazos just north of Waco) to Fort Washita. Like many of the early frontier forts, Fort Graham's presence encouraged settlement in the area until it was abandoned in 1853.
Lake Whitney is a bustling area, probably because it is situated so close to the Dallas/ Fort Worth metroplex. On a weekend drive, the roads are filled to their edges with cars and trucks towing boats in and out of the water. The map around Lake Whitney is dotted with camping areas on all sides of the snake shaped water. We made our way through the weekend traffic, took 933 to 174 and headed to Fort Worth through Cleburne.
Route to Houston via the Texas Independence Trail
Leaving Fort Worth on a gray January day, we followed our regular route to tacos before even planning our next move. There just doesn’t seem to be a good reason to tamper with a working routine. This road trip varied from the others when we decided to follow the Independence Trail over to Washington on the Brazos State Park. But first, we crossed to Navasota on Highway 105, where “horse breeding is as common as golfing.” Today’s Navasota is fertile and green, quite a contrast to its beginnings, which were besmirched with heartache and disease. The crises began in 1865 when Confederate veterans set fire to a warehouse full of gunpowder and cotton. What resulted was an explosion that took out a good portion of the town’s vitality, including its post office. Next came the wildfire spread of first cholera then yellow fever, depleting the population of Navasota by about 50 percent. Further strife arrived with the Ku Klux Klan, requiring on at least one occasion a troop of federal soldiers to squelch this epidemic of hatred. Today, the town and its surrounding countryside enjoys a peaceful if not prosperous existence, the only mentionable threat being the endangerment of the Navasota Ladies’ Tresses, an extremely rare stalk of tiny white orchids, which unfortunately exist where coal strip-mining now takes place.
We moseyed on down toward Washington on the Brazos State Park, where a sign instructed us to tune our radios to 91.9 FM for the park’s information. Here we toured by car the State Park that served as the canvas for Texas’ original drafting and design. We passed the Star of the Republic Museum, a two-story building shaped like nothing other than a five-pointed star. On the day we visited, the Museum library was closed, but it looks well worth a return trip during the week. Containing 3,000 volumes, this extensive research library houses a rare and treasured collection documenting Texas history. Right outside the museum stands a statue of George C. Childress, the main author of Texas’ Declaration of Independence and chairman of its delegation. It’s a dramatic and mighty rendering of him, the fabric of his coat and thick waves of his hair ruffled as if by a strong wind. It reminds me of a sculpture of Poseidon or Zeus, the powerful stern features bearing down upon mere mortals as they study its form.
We stopped the car briefly to take a couple of pictures of the horses grazing outside the Barrington Living History Farm. Barrington was the name of the Plantation that Anson Jones, Texas’ fourth and final President occupied after the Republic was annexed to the United States. Taking their cues from Jones’ own journal entries, costumed interpreters have recreated life on Barrington Farm, complete with the authentic breeds of livestock from Texas’ true lone star era. We did not witness this ‘Living History’ as we visited the park on a Saturday. It’s a beautifully verdant and peaceful place, though, and I imagined for just a moment the layers upon layers of colorful cotton fabric on long-aproned women as they carried heavy buckets of water or baskets from hither to yon while the hems of their skirts brushed dust covered paths. I pictured the proud Anson Jones, quill in hand, surveying the productivity of his peach trees, counting out 200 bushels of corn, and recording these notes in his journal. In these daybook pages, he remarked on one occasion that two slaves, Jerry and Mary, “broke up” cotton using an ox. I wondered if the interpreters who portray these slaves feel that hard, inexpressible tension that accompanied those whose long days demanded that they shoulder the heavy burdens of labor on this farm, with no time, no daylight left, nor even the implements to record them into a journal. A pale colored horse raised her head just midway as the camera clicked. One keen ear turned this way and that while we got back into the car and drove on.
Washington on the Brazos served as Sam Houston’s headquarters for the volunteer army in 1835. By March, 1836, the framers of the Texas Declaration of Independence arrived on the scene, desperate and determined to exercise their “right of self-preservation.” When General Santa Anna took over Mexico, the Texans felt a very palpable threat to their autonomy as a Republic, and they determined that, as unpleasant and costly as the task might be, they would rather fight for their independence than “submit to the most intolerable of all tyranny, the combined despotism of the sword and the priesthood.” The names on the bottom of this document are those for whom counties and towns are named today, a permanent reminder and expression of reverence for those who “fearlessly and confidently” declared our sovereignty from military rule. Caldwell, Crawford, and Childress. I can imagine this convention of doctors, farmers, soldiers and pioneers as they earnestly brainstormed their list of grievances to be etched onto these pages.
In 1843, President Sam Houston dispatched an expedition to travel northward through the Texas plains and exhort all the chiefs to attend a meeting at Bird’s Fort, located in today’s DFW metroplex, along the Trinity River. Ever an advocate of peace with the tribes, Houston’s goal was to negotiate a treaty that would be satisfactory to all parties involved. Colonel J.C. Eldridge, General Ham Bee, and Thomas Torrey led the expedition, and three Delaware chiefs and a Waco accompanied them. These delegates departed from Washington in the spring of 1843 on what would become an exceedingly difficult journey. General Bee recorded their travels in a journal, an excerpt of which appears in J.W. Wilbarger’s Indian Depredations in Texas, and after many days of eating buffalo meat alone, with no salt or bread or rice, he poetically describes what provided their relief:
After wandering for many days over the vast prairies of Northwest Texas, in search of the head chief of the Comanche nation, but without success, we halted one morning in an immense plum patch to regale ourselves upon the delicious fruit with which the bushes were covered. Whilst busily engaged in this pleasant occupation, our attention was drawn to fresh plum skins on the ground, evidently quite recently pulled, and telling us that others besides ourselves were somewhere in the vicinity, who were as fond of plums as we were. This incident, like Crusoe’s discovery of the foot prints in the sand by the sea shore, alarmed us a good deal and destroyed our appetite for plums, for we knew very well that any band of Indians we might encounter would be much more likely to prove enemies than friends.
Before we had come to any conclusion as to what was best to be done, an object approaching us was discovered. It proved to be a Comanche Indian, with a boy seven or eight years old, riding in front of him upon a magnificent horse. He came in right amongst us, and at first we were at a loss to understand why such a large, powerful man, as he evidently was, should be riding behind a little boy, but he informed us that he was totally blind, and that the little boy was his guide. He told us also of our near proximity to a large village of the Comanches (of which he was one of the chiefs), and to our great joy he told us it was also the village of Pa-ha-yu-co, the head chief of the Comanche Nation, the one we had been vainly looking for during the last three months. After the little boy (who was really quite handsome, dressed in his buck skin hunting shirt and leggings ornamented with beads) had gathered as many plums as he wanted, the blind chief started back to the village, accompanied by our Delaware Indian interpreters.
When I look at the Texas map, with its endless spider webbed network of rivers and roads, it’s difficult to imagine the land in her primitive state. I can’t picture their route from Washington back toward Fort Worth the way we just drove, traveling days on horseback without ever encountering another human being, until the ground, speckled with the remains of half-eaten plums, gave the Indians away. However, unlike Robinson Crusoe, the expedition did not so easily subdue the owner of those “footprints” to their will. Only in the most romantic of fiction would these dignified whites make willing servants of the savages.
Out of the state park, we took Farm Road 1155, curving in wide serpentine patterns along a pretty piece of Texas countryside. This road became for us another hidden treasure, a heads-up penny, as the horizon opened wider and wider to reveal a covert row of houses far off on a high hill beyond the trees. Hypnotized, I scanned the borders of the landscape while Rick guided the Cadillac this way and that, following the road. We passed a herd of cattle grazing, and just as we drove by, lying by the fence, a cow dog yawned.
We made our way to Chappell Hill, TX “Welcome to God’s Country.” We passed Bevers Kitchen Café, with a painted sign bearing a buxom beaver wearing an apron, and holding up a pie and a rolling pin, all the characteristic makings of some downright good cooking. Chappell Hill’s female founder named the town after her grandfather, Robert Wooding Chappell. The town played its part in the Civil War, as the 21st Texas Lancers were raised here. Also, a prison camp for Union soldiers, Camp Felder, was located nearby. Today, the people of Chappell Hill are unified and proud of their annual events: The Bluebonnet Festival, Birdfest, and on the Fourth of July, “The Best Little Small Town Parade in Texas.”
Next we followed a leg of the Texas Independence Trail south on 1371. We arrived at Bellville, where, in the pines just north of town, a double hanging took place in 1896. The previous year, two murders happened in Austin County just 38 days apart. Both of the accused were sentenced to death by hanging, so for the price of $22.30, the sheriff had a double scaffold built by one of his relatives. Both inmates were baptized and served a lavish meal of wine, chicken and ham, biscuits, and cakes and pies. The townspeople bought tickets to attend this dual execution, though many more of the crowd just crashed through the cemetery gates, grossly outnumbering the paying patrons. Nobody, it seems, would miss the opportunity to witness the previously supposed impossible feat of hanging two jailbirds at once. And according to legend, there was quite some heated deliberation about the destination of these two convicts, baptism or not.
We drove through Bellville’s town square, a quaintly inviting few blocks of retail shops, including the Four Roses antique shop and the Twin Sisters, a woman’s clothing boutique. Originally I thought the name would surely signify that two sisters own the place, but there’s another possible explanation. This region of Texas knows a famous pair of “Twin Sisters,” a pair of cannons delivered to General Houston after Texas’ painful defeats at the Alamo and Goliad. When those two girls rolled into town, I imagine Houston’s troops were galvanized and ready to end this war once and for all. And end it they did, after just a month of training, at the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21.
Following the Texas Independence Trail from Bellville, we headed south on Highway 36 to Sealy, whose original prosperity was created by the sale of several leagues of land to the railroad companies. It was usually the case in Texas’ early settlements that the towns who embraced the development of the railroads multiplied rapidly, while those who relied on the rivers eventually faded or had to relocate. Sealy thrived until a series of tragedies at the turn of the century stunted its growth. First, the Brazos River flood in 1899 brought severe damage. That summer, this region saw more than nine inches of rain in less than two weeks, and the river, whose profound embrace across the Texas plains was named the loving arms of God, couldn't hold that much water. The resulting flood cost 280 lives and the loss of countless homes. Next, the Gulf, Colorado, and Santa Fe moved its headquarters out of Sealy and north to Bellville, taking a vital economy with it. In September of 1900, the Great Storm, a Galveston hurricane, kicked ‘em while they were already down. Economic recovery finally came in the form of the Sealy Mattress Company, still the major name in its industry.
Our visit to Sealy was quick, just a glance here and there as we crossed I-10 and continued south on Highway 36 toward Rosenberg. Another town that the auspices of the railroad created, Rosenberg developed when Richmond denied passage to the Gulf, Colorado, and Santa Fe. President of this railway, Henry Rosenberg, established the town at the crossroads of his railway with the Galveston, Harrisburg, and San Antonio line. Rosenberg also was host to the headquarters of the “Macaroni Line,” a railway toward Victoria built by Italian Count Joseph Telfner, and suddenly I can't clear my mind of the old song, who stuck a feather in his hat...
We turned east on 90 to Richmond, the seat of Fort Bend County. One of the oldest commercial buildings in Richmond is the location of the old Sunset Saloon, which was built in the 1860s. Another victim to the Great Storm in 1900, the Sunset’s second story was ripped off when the hurricane’s fatal winds sliced through town. Richmond saw its first railroad in 1855, when the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos, and Colorado Railroad whistled and chugged its way through to Columbus. Things became a lot easier for travel and shipping of goods when, in 1867, the people of Richmond built a railway bridge across a low part of the Brazos, making the previous and primitive use of ferries no longer necessary. Two years later, this very bridge became the gallows for a horse thief when vigilantes dragged him out of his jail cell one night while he slept.
While Richmond has a history that is all its own, and it once created a name for itself as a major hub in the cattle industry, today it blends with Houston. A drive through Richmond is rather indistinguishable from its giant sprawling northeastern neighbor. But the one thing that does distinguish it in the grand scheme of Texas lore is that Richmond is the site of the grave for the woman who was named "The Mother of Texas," even before her death in 1880. A remarkably young bride, Jane Wilkinson Long married her husband James when she was just sixteen, and she left their home in Natchez to join him on the Bolivar Peninsula (near Galveston) at a fort built to attempt the liberation of Texas from Spain. The stories differ on the details concerning what earned her the title of the Lone Star's Mother. Some accounts claim that she was quite literally the first English-speaking woman to enter motherhood on Texas soil, giving birth to her first daughter in 1821. Others attribute her nickname to her firm resolve when it came to standing side by side with her husband in his military endeavors. Determined to establish Texas' independence from the Spanish, she joined him at Fort Las Casas in Bolivar, and while he fought at La Bahia, she remained there with her children even when the others headed to the mainland when the fort's supplies ran dry. On hearing of his capture and death in Mexico City, she reportedly rode on horseback to appeal to one of the Mexican governors for justice for her husband's executioners.
An ever faithful widow to her husband's memory, Jane Long remained single, though reports claim that she was courted by Stephen Austin, Ben Milam, and even Sam Houston. While as a young bride, she waited for her husband's return patiently and stubbornly at the fort in Bolivar, and then Jane Long spent her later years in Fort Bend County until her death. She opened a boarding house in the Richmond area in 1837, serving as hostess for many of our history's VIP's, including a formal ball for Stephen F. Austin on his return from capture in Mexico. She also ran a successful plantation outside of town, all the while refusing to accept a man's offer of marriage. A heroic and inspiring figure for her intrepid self-reliance, the Mother of Texas accompanied her husband in his quest to build this land as its own Republic, even though his efforts were just slightly premature. She alone witnessed the transformation of Texas from Spanish rule to finally, statehood. I looked at a portrait of Long in her later years, and through a plucky, eccentric grin, I could see the younger soldier inside, the one who gave birth alone to a child in a snow-covered, abandoned fort. I saw the one who kept her children warm and fed, literally living off the land by feeding them oysters and other seafood from the Gulf. Through that grin I saw the soldier who cleverly tricked Karankawa Indians in the not so far off distance into believing the fort was occupied by men. And I saw the aging widow who evolved into a shrewd and prosperous business woman, self sufficient and determined to advance, leaving a legacy of courage and motherhood to the Richmond area.
From Richmond on Highway 90, we crossed the Brazos River and made our way into Houston for the night.