The Cotton Road to Matamoros

Evading the Union Blockade in the Civil War 

In 1862, the Civil War was in full swing. The Rio Grande River defined the border between Texas and Mexico, ultimately spilling into the Gulf. The south-to-north flow of the Gulf Stream waters and the prevailing east-west winds combined to create heavy seas and treacherous sandbars at the mouth of the river. Yet it was here that the Confederacy implemented a key strategy designed to help win the war—a strategy based on “King Cotton.” 

Prior to the Civil War, cotton was the United States’ number one export, and it grew primarily in the South. The British were the largest customers, because Southern cotton fueled England’s chief industry—the textile mills. France also wanted its share of cotton. Confederate leaders hoped that holding back cotton from European markets would cause Britain and France to support the Confederacy during the war in order to ensure the flow of cotton. With this “cotton diplomacy,” the Confederate government wanted to create a scarcity, so it burned more than a million bales of cotton. However, Britain had stockpiled several months’ worth of cotton. Historically, they made significant wheat purchases and carried on industrial trade with northern states, which they did not wish to disrupt. So, politically, they walked the line and favored neither the Union or the South. France followed suit.

However, it wasn’t long before the stockpiled cotton supplies in England were consumed. Alternate sources in India, Brazil, and Egypt were not in full production. In 1862, the British “Cotton Famine” began. With an estimated twenty percent of the British population directly or indirectly employed by the cotton industry, the sudden lack of the South’s high quality cotton was a significant economic event, especially in the spinning factories of Manchester and the weaving factories of Lancashire. In Lancashire alone, 430,000 people were employed during the peak of production. With no cotton, production stopped. Mills closed. Mass unemployment led to poverty. Soup kitchens opened, and the government  provided relief in the form of tokens for the purchase of goods. They also offered emigration to America. Riots popped up across the region, resulting in the government offering paid employment in urban renewal programs.

Britain needed the South’s cotton. And the South needed to sell its cotton in order to fund the war. However the Union had blockaded the Confederate ports, shutting down both the receiving and shipping of goods. The Confederacy had two options. Try to run the blockade in small, fast ships—attempts which often failed. Or find a back door for shipments both in and out of the Confederacy.

The Rio Grande, an international waterway, and the twin cities of Matamoros, Mexico and Brownsville,Texas became the Confederacy’s backdoor and the greatest cotton market in the world began. Mexicans refer to the years of the Civil War as “the time of cotton.” 

Cotton was the lifeblood of the Confederacy. It was acquired from growers in a variety of ways, including cotton tithes (growers pledged to give 10% of their crop to the confederate government), conscription, and purchase. Cotton was hauled overland to Brownsville, then transported across the Rio Grande River to Matamoros. There, it sold for gold and was exchanged for military supplies, then transported to the Port of Bagdad at the mouth of the river. It was loaded on foreign flag ships, and transported to mills in Europe or to other buyers. 

A flood of cotton from Texas (and other trans-Mississippi states), flowed to Brownsville. The Cotton Road was—as one participant said, “. . .one vast and almost unbroken line of mule or ox-drawn wagons carrying cotton to the gulf shore.” 

Not just one road, the cotton road was actually a network of historic Spanish colonial trails across western Texas known as El Camino Real or The King’s Highway. This network of dirt trails stretched hundreds and hundreds of miles.Traffic on parts of the cotton road was so heavy that, at some points, the trail was a mile wide. Plains Indians, Mexican bandits, military deserters, and other desperados plagued caravans on the road. One portion of the cotton road, “The Big Sands,” was an ordeal of 120 miles of desert sand with no water, searing heat, whirlwinds, scorpions, and snakes. Littered with broken carts, dead and dying draft animals, and abandoned cotton bales, it told a story of hard travel. What little vegetation existed, reached out to scratch, cut, or impale anyone who got too close. 

Depending upon point of origin, cotton caravans could choose from several paths to Brownsville. Many passed through San Antonio, Banquete, and Richard King’s Ranch, where they could buy supplies, repair or buy carts and new animals, even hire Mexican freighters with heavy-duty carts. For a fee, the freighters would deliver cotton across the Big Sands to Brownsville. Other portions of the cotton road traveled through Alleytown, Roma, Laredo, and Eagle Pass. Which ever trail one chose, it would be busy with hundreds of wagons hauling thousands of bales. Returning from Brownsville were more caravans loaded with gold and important supplies for the Confederacy. For years after the war, the trails of the cotton road were marked with cotton fibers snagged on bushes and flying like tiny flags.

A good heavy-duty cotton wagon measured twenty-four feet long, four-and-a-half feet wide and had sides rising almost five-and-a-half feet. It had iron running gear and could carry sixteen tarp-covered bales or eight thousand pounds. The Mexican carts were even stronger and could carry twenty bales or ten thousand pounds, with wheels squeaking as they rolled. Freighters pushed Prickly pear cactus leaves into their carts’ groaning wheel hubs as lubrication.

Caravans varied in size but generally had a master, a couple of section leaders, a dozen or more teamsters, several armed outriders, a person to ride herd on twenty or thirty extra draft animals (mules or oxen), and a cook. Loaded with cotton, caravans were slow going, often delayed, and trips to Brownsville could take months. For example, caravans crossing the Brazos River could be delayed for weeks by high water at the river fords. 

Here’s a simplistic description of the very complex process which occurred upon the cotton’s arrival in Brownsville. From Brownsville, small steamboats carried cotton across the river to Matamoros. Ownership was registered by a Mexican “straw man” to turn it into Mexican-owned cotton. A cotton agent would negotiate the sale with a buyer’s agent. Over the course of the war, cotton sold for an average of fifty cents a pound for a 450-500 pound bale, (it sold for less early in the war) Instead, it might be bartered for merchandise. Import-export taxes were collected. Small-draft boats would carry the cotton down the twisting, shallow river to the Port of Bagdad where it would be loaded on large foreign ships, waiting at anchor in international waters. Union blockade ships would not interfere with these foreign-registered ships flying their countries’ flags, since the Union wanted to avoid any international incidents. Arriving merchandise would be off-loaded from foreign-flag ships and delivered up river to buyers in the same fashion. 

On an interesting note: Savvy men made vast fortunes in the cotton market. For example, in 1862, an owner could sell cotton in the Matamoros market for $.30 per pound or $135 per 450 pound bale. With the right contacts, the buyer could then turn around and, using agents in Mexico and New York, negotiate a sale to New York mills for as much as $1.50 per pound, or $675 per bale. A difference of $540 per bale. If a seller had one hundred bales to sell, the gross would total $54,000 before expenses, compared to a Matamoros purchase of $13,500. A reinvestment of $40,500 in gross revenue could generate more profit. 

Strange as it seems, it’s true that Northern textile mills were a major market for Matamoros cotton. The justification for selling to the enemy was that the Confederacy benefited more from northern gold and military materials than the north benefited from textiles. Nor was it illegal. The Confederate legislature did not prevent states from doing business with the North.

During the Civil War, cotton was critical to the Confederacy’s ability to fund its government and support the war effort. Thousands of wagons traveled the Cotton Road to the Rio Grande cities of Brownsville and Matamoros, site of The “World’s Largest Cotton Market,” where trade boomed, despite the Union blockade. These wagons traveled back to the Confederate states loaded with guns, ammunition, other tools of war, critical civilian supplies, and gold. Without the Matamoros Cotton market, it would have been a very different Civil War, yet many Texas history books don’t mention it all.

This is Texas Brave and Strong, If you’ve enjoyed this tidbit of Texas history, please share it with a friend. There’s a new Texas Brave and Strong episode every other week. Also check out my historical novel, GONE TO DALLAS: The Storekeeper 1856-1861. Find the paperback and ebook on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other bookish sites. 

—Laurie Moore-Moore

Iconic Texas Ranger named “Rest IN Peace!”

A hard-riding, sharp-shooting doctor of many talents 

If you had to guess how a tough Texas Ranger of the 1800s would earn a name, such as “Rest in Peace,” you might assume it was because he had sent so many bad guys and fearsome Indians to their graves to “rest in peace.” You’d be wrong! I’ll tell you the actual story in just a few minutes.  

First, let me introduce John Salmon Ford. He was born in 1815 in South Carolina and was reared on a plantation in Tennessee. He studied medicine beginning at age sixteen. Young Doctor Ford arrived in Saint Augustine, Texas in 1836, just six weeks after Texas became a republic. He was twenty-one years old. His old life was behind him. Ford had married Mary Davis in Tennessee and they had two children. The marriage quickly resulted in divorce. Ford had gained custody of his daughter and left her in the care of his parents, who hoped to follow him to Texas. The son remained with Ford’s former wife. 

When Ford reached Saint Augustine, rumors were sweeping East Texas that the Cherokee Indians living in Texas were planning an uprising in support of Mexico retaking Texas. East Texas counties raised companies of men and sent them to Nacogdoches, where Sam Houston had assumed command. Inspired, after hearing Sam Houston speak, Ford joined the Saint Augustine volunteers and spent several days in camp with other volunteers. When the Indian chiefs convinced Houston that their intent was peaceful, the volunteer troops went home. Doctor Ford had no idea that this brief episode would be his first involvement in a long, long list of events of importance in Texas over a period of sixty years. 

Dr. Ford returned to Saint Augustine, where he began his practice of medicine, studied law, passed the bar exam and was active in the community. He taught a boy’s Sunday school class and started a Thespian group—a forerunner of today’s Little Theatre.  

However, two years after the 1836 concern about a Cherokee-Mexican coalition to overthrow the new Texas Republic, such a plot exploded upon the scene. Vincente Cordova, one of Nacogdoches’ largest landowners and a Mexican loyalist, assembled hundreds of Mexican loyalists and Indians. Cordova encouraged the group. “To not cease to harass [the Texans] for a single day; to burn their habitations, to lay waste their fields, and to prevent their assembling . . .” In return, he promised protection from Mexico and titles to Texas land. Again, a call went out to citizens for volunteers to fight Rip Ford, Texas Ranger the rebellion. Dr. Ford and his musket again joined the Saint Augustine volunteer company. In the face of Texan’s armed resistance, Cordova fled. The rebels were dispersed from the local area. Hiding in other parts of the state, Cordova continued to work to incite rebellion. Indian and Mexican rebel raids intensified. 

Although Cherokee Chief Bowles claimed his tribe had no part in the many attacks, the fear of the public and the determination of President Mirabeau Lamar to rid the state of the Cherokee, ultimately resulted in Chief Bowles agreeing his tribe would to leave the state, but only in return for compensation. When Bowles continued to delay leaving, the Texans feared he was buying time to gather his warriors. Texas Secretary of War, Albert Sidney Johnston, was sent to continue negotiations. He was accompanied by nine hundred members of the Texas army. When it appeared Bowles would fight rather than leave. Johnston ordered his troops toward Bowles Village. 

Meanwhile, the Saint Augustine citizen volunteers (including Ford) had been ordered to neutralize the Shawnee who were camped at Big Spring Village. The mission was accomplished by confiscating the locks of the Shawnee’s flint lock rifles. Later when the troops arrived at Bowles’ village, they found a two-day battle was over, and Chief Bowles and most of his warriors were dead. The remaining Cherokee were removed to Indian Territory (what is now Oklahoma). Dr. Ford returned to his Saint Augustine medical office on Columbia Street, where he made house calls for two dollars, and wrote prescriptions for ipecac, quinine, and calomel. A surgical bill to a Mr. Lewis for fifty dollars, reveals Ford removed a piece of bone from Lewis’ son’s brain and provided post-operative treatment. 

Six years later, in 1844, Ford successfully won a place in the Texas House of Representatives, where he served on the committees for Indian Affairs and Education. He also bought and edited the Texas National Register newspaper, subsequently changing its name to The Democrat. The following year he married Louisa Swisher.  

In May of 1846, Louisa became ill. Ford ignored his newspaper duties to nurse her. After a brief illness, she died at age 27 on August 5, 1846 and was buried in Section One of the Old Grounds of Oakwood Cemetery in Austin. Ford was distraught. He left the cemetery as one who “has had the besom [broom] of destruction pass over his domestic hearth.” 

Just prior to Louisa’s death, the U.S. Government had declared a state of war with Mexico. The Mexican-American War was underway with Texas troops already fighting along the Rio Grande border. Hoping that military service would provide relief from his grief, Ford cast his lot with the Texas Rangers on May 10,1847. Private Ford joined Captain Samuel Highsmith’s company of Colonel John Coffee Hays’ regiment of Texas Mounted Volunteers, a group largely composed of experienced Texas Rangers. Ford was quickly promoted to lieutenant and transferred to Hay’s headquarters staff as regimental adjutant. 

One part of Jack Hay’s command was posted to Texas’ frontier defense, A second group was sent inside Mexico, to protect General Zachary Taylor’s supply line from guerrilla attacks. Ford joined the group headed for Mexico. Although Ford’s duties were based at headquarters, he organized a fifty-member spy company to operate independently of the regiment’s usual activity. Rather than waiting for guerrillas to attack, the spy company went in search of them. When the regiment moved, the spy company served as scouts. The regiment elected Ford as captain. Ford proved himself a capable soldier as the spy group pursued Celedonio Jarauta Ha-rou-da, a Spanish Catholic priest and notorious Mexican guerrilla leader. Fighting was fierce. In one attack on the rangers by Padre Jarauta’s Ha-rou-da’s guerrillas, the rangers new’ Colt six-shooters proved key to repulsing the guerrillas. 

In his memoirs, “Adventures with Guerrillas,” Lieutenant E.M. Daggett, had this to say about the Colt revolver: One thing that contributed to save our command in this affair was the holy awe and superstition entertained by the untutored [Mexican]s in regard to the “revolver.” They understood the term to mean a turning around and about—a circulator; and were led to believe the ball would revolve in all directions after its victim, run around trees and turn corners, go into houses and climb stairs, and hunt up folks generally.” 

It was at this point in his career, that Ford most likely earned the name “Rest in Peace.” Along with his fighting duties, as Colonel Hays’ adjutant officer, Ford wrote letters of condolence to the loved ones of troops either killed in action, or who died from disease (unfortunately, there were lots of those). Ford’s habit was to write ‘Rest in Peace,” or RIP (rip) at the end of these letters. Soon the other Rangers were calling him Old RIP or Rip Ford. The nickname stuck. 

Had you met Ford at this time—immersed in his fighting career—here’s what you might have experienced. Visualize a tall, slim man, dressed in buckskin pants and a worn buckskin jacket, fringed at the hem and neck. As he steps out of Colonel Jack Coffee Hays’ command tent, he places a flat, high-brimmed black hat on his head and comes toward you. As he gets closer, you can see a revolver holster low on each hip. He wears his dark hair combed straight back from his forehead. It’s just long enough to tuck behind his big ears. Set in a clean-shaven face, his mouth forms a straight line and his expression is watchful. Ford’s deep-set, piercing blue eyes focus briefly on you, scan the area behind you, and shift back to you, making eye-contact. In a well modulated voice with a touch of a Southern accent, he says, I’m Captain Rip Ford, Colonel Hayes adjutant officer. How can I help you? 

In May of 1848, following the end of the war, Ford put soldiering aside temporarily and joined Robert S. Neighbors, an Indian agent, in exploring the un-mapped country between Austin and El Paso, in search of a good trail. By June of 1849, the exploration and surveying project was completed. The map of their recommended route between the two towns, became known as the Ford and Neighbors Trail. It stretched 580 miles and could be traveled on horseback in twenty days. The trail subsequently served 49’ers seeking California gold and settlers moving west.  

Later that year, Ford’s previous commander, John Coffee Hays, joined the 49er California gold rush. Ford returned to rangering and was officially promoted to captain in the Texas Rangers. His assignment, to patrol and protect the far western frontier from Indians and Mexican bandits. For two years, based near Corpus Christi, he and a small group of men engaged in hard and effective policing of the sandy desert and plains between the Frio, Nueces, and Rio Grande Rivers. 

Mustering out when his tour of duty was over, Ford was solicited to provide support to a Texas-born Mexican, Jose Carbajal, who, with the support of several north Mexican states, wished to establish a free republic in Mexico along the Rio Grande. Some leading citizens of the south Texas frontier, objecting to high Mexican tariffs and other obstacles to trade, were also supportive of Carbajal’s efforts. Ford was unable to provide much help due to illness, possibly malaria. The campaign failed before Ford recovered. 

By 1852, he was back in politics as a Texas State Senator and publishing his newspaper on the side. In 1854 he was mayor of Austin. 

Six years later, in 1858, Federal protection of the frontier had faltered The death toll of settlers had skyrocketed in counties on the fringe of settlement. The Texas governor signed a bill authorizing one-hundred additional frontier rangers, who would join those already in the field, under a single commander—Rip Ford. The campaign was successful. By August the Indians left Texas for lands in Indian Territory. 

The next year, Major Ford was transferred to the Rio Grande, where he no sooner had arrived, than he led a small group of his rangers against the bandit-general Juan Cortina. The daring Cortina had invaded Texas with four or five hundred men. By theft, murder, and cattle rustling, the bandits terrorized the entire southwest of the state for months, even taking over the town of Brownsville. Under Ford’s leadership, men of Ford’s Rio Grande Squadron, Texas Rangers defeated Cortina, who was seen swimming across the Rio Grande to escape. His men melted away and no longer occupied Texas’ side of the River. However, they continued to raid. With federal permission, and a warning to Mexico, Ford, his rangers, and members of the U.S. Second Cavalry took the fight into Mexico, finally ending Cortina’s banditry. 

In 1861, Ford was a member of the Texas Succession Convention, which voted to leave the Union. He helped negotiate a critically important trade agreement between Texas and Mexico as the Civil War began and was promoted to colonel in the Second Texas Cavalry. Working to secure the Texas frontier forts which were manned by federal troops, Ford took command of Fort Brown, near the Texas town of Brownsville, with orders to remove the federals, who would be sent home. He was accompanied by an armed force. After negotiations, the Union soldiers left. Now his challenge was to restaff the fort which was located across the Rio Grande River from Matamoros, Mexico, soon to be the heart of the Texas cotton trade.This assignment was a crucial one, since the Union Blockade was curtailing shipping in and out of the South. 

The selling of cotton internationally was essential to the funding of the Confederacy. The Union blockade hampered the Confederacy in acquiring supplies, and significantly reduced its ability to get Southern cotton to market. The options available to the Confederacy were running the blockade (a risky and often unsuccessful proposition), or bringing supplies in and shipping cotton out to market through Matamoros’s Port of Bagdad at the mouth of the Rio Grande. This strategy required using ships which were registered in foreign countries and flew foreign flags. Since the Union did not want to create international incidents, foreign flag ships were generally safe from the blockade. 

Along with repairing and restaffing Fort Brown, Ford was given responsibility for ten forts along the western frontier from his headquarters at Brownsville. He also took time —in May of 1861—to marry Addie Smith, a young Brownsville woman less than half his age. One has to wonder when he found time to court her. In 1862, Ford was assigned command of all Texas troops on the Rio Grande. In July he was reassigned to Austin, the headquarters of the Texas Confederacy, to take charge of the state’s conscription of soldiers. at the same time, maintaining some responsibility for the Matamoros cotton trade. Unhappily, he had left Addie at her fathers’ home in Brownsville, due to her pregnancy. She joined him in Austin in November, and he met his new daughter, May Louise Ford, who had been born in August. For four months he became a private citizen. 

In early November of 1863, the Union Commander of the Gulf, captured Brazos Island and took control of Fort Brown and the Rio Grande River north to Rio Grande City, closing trade between Matamoros and Brownsville. Valley residents petitioned the Texas government for “Old Rip” to come to their rescue. He did. The next month, Ford took command of a regiment of volunteers too young or too old for regular service. He named this regiment the Cavalry of the West. Shortly thereafter, Ford was promoted to brigadier general. 

By 1865, the Civil War was winding down. The Confederacy’s surrender took place at Appomattox, on April 9, 1865, By May 11th—more than a month later—word of the surrender had still not reached the Confederates in far southwest Texas. The commander of a Union camp on nearby Brazos Island sent three hundred Union soldiers to take possession of Brownsville. Along the way, the federal troops attacked a Confederate outpost at Palmeto Ranch. On day two of the action, Ford informed Confederate Gen. James Slaughter in command of the outpost, that,”You can retreat and go to hell if you wish. These are my men and I am going to fight.” Ford led his men to battle, and routed the Union troops, sending them running from the battlefield. The South had won the battle, but had already lost the war. The Battle of Palmeto Ranch was the final land battle of the Civil War. Won by General Rip Ford and his men. 

By the close of the Civil War, Ford’s hair was grey, He had mostly dark chin whiskers, wore a general’s uniform, and had thoughtful (some might say sad) eyes that had seen many a battle. Never was he commissioned as a confederate officer. Instead, he served his beloved Texas as a Texas frontier ranger. 

After the Civil War, Ford spent the next three decades serving Texas in a variety of ways: 

• As a delegate to the 1872 Democratic convention in Baltimore 

• In 1873, as cattle and hide inspector in Cameron County, to help fight rustling 

• Also In 1873, as a Special Sergeant of Arms and calming force in the election 

riots between supporters of gubernatorial candidates Davis and Coke 

• In 1874, as mayor and marshal of Brownsville 

• As a member of the State Constitutional Convention of 1875 

• As a Texas Senator from 1876 to 1879 

• In 1879, as superintendent of what became the Texas School for the Deaf. 

• In his later years, he wrote historical articles and reminiscences of his 


John Salmon (Rest in Peace) Ford, a unique Texas hero, died in San Antonio on November 3, 1897, after sixty years of service to Texas. He was 82 years old. May he rest in peace. 

This is Texas Brave and Strong. If you’ve enjoyed this tidbit of Texas history, please share it  with a friend. There’s a new Texas Brave and Strong episode every other week. 

Also check out my historical novel, GONE TO DALLAS: The Storekeeper 1856-1861. Find the  paperback and ebook on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other bookish sites. 

—Laurie Moore-Moore 


The Brazos River is the longest river in Texas. Its watershed stretches over 1000 miles, rising from hardscrabble ground in New Mexico and West Texas, curling and splashing through the green hills of central Texas, and ultimately spilling into the blue Gulf of Mexico.

Before the the extermination of the buffalo following the Civil War, the Brazos was the dividing line between Anglo-American and Tejano settlements east of the river and Comancheria—the land to the West, ruled by the mighty Comanche. When the Civil War ended in the 1860s, this dividing line shifted further west and settlement encroached onto the western plains. This created more need to cross the Brazos; however, no bridges crossed the river in the central part of the state. Instead, cattle drives along the Shawnee and Chisholm trails, stagecoaches, and other travelers depended upon ferries or low-water crossings. During the wet season, delays in crossing the Brazos could last for weeks.

In 1866 the Texas State Legislature authorized the newly formed Waco Bridge Company to raise funds for construction of a bridge crossing the river at a spot located on the edge of Waco, Texas, a small settlement of about 1500 people. The selection of the site was a logical one since it adjoined Indian Springs, a historic Indian camp ground and water crossing. This early crossing on the Brazos is documented by a bronze plaque on a large granite stone placed near the bridge by the Daughters of the American Revolution.

But, back to 1866 . . .The legislative charter awarded to the Waco Bridge Company granted a twenty-five year monopoly guaranteeing no other river crossing within five miles of the new toll bridge. The Company President, John T. Flint oversaw the creation of $25,000 in funding and the hiring of a civil engineer—Thomas F. Griffith—who arrived in 1868 from New York, and began planning for the design and construction of a single-span suspension bridge.

A Trenton, New Jersey firm, The Roebling Company was selected to provide cables and bridgework. Materials were sent by boat from New Jersey to Galveston, by train to Bryan, Texas and then by ox cart to Waco. Local workers were hired for the construction. (On an interesting note, The Robeling Company subsequently built New York’s Brooklyn Bridge.)

According to the Historic American Engineering Record, the Waco Bridge’s design originally featured two castellated pink brick towers. its tollhouses featured stepped gable roofs, parapets, and round arched openings.The floor was made of timber planks. Its design was substantial looking and wide enough to handle pedestrians, stagecoaches, and lots of cattle.

In 1870, the completed Waco suspension bridge stretched 475 feet bank-to-bank across the Brazos. It was the longest suspension bridge west of the Mississippi. Tolls for the bridge were ten cents for an animal and rider, foot passengers and individual animals (including cattle) were five cents each, small animals such as hogs, goats, or sheep crossed for three cents. After one year the tolls collected allowed the mortgage on the bridge to be paid in full.

Can you imagine the sight of 3000 cattle and the accompanying cowboys lined up and crossing the bridge while it swayed with the movement of the herd and the toll taker tried to keep count? A sight to be seen!!But not everyone loved the bridge. When, after the bridge’s construction, a traveling circus came to town, the lead elephant put one foot on the bridge, stopped, and refused to take one more step. The circus ended up using a water crossing instead, and the story is that the elephants enjoyed the river, splashing and squirting water. No bridge for them!!

For almost twenty years there were on-going complaints about the tolls from travelers and locals alike. Finally in September of 1889, McLennan County bought the bridge from the Waco Bridge Company for $75,000. The county gave the bridge to the city in return for promises that the city would maintain the structure. The suspension bridge over the river became toll-free.

In 1914, the bridge was extensively remodeled to handle more traffic. According to an article on the website of the Texas State Historical Association, “The cable system was replaced, the roadway was reinforced with steel, and the towers were rebuilt and stuccoed.” Stiffening trusses were also added. In the 1940s, school children using the bridge to walk to-and-from school were notorious for making the suspended bridge swing and sway high above the water. The bridge was open to vehicular traffic until 1971, when it was converted to pedestrian use only.

In 2017, the findings of a comprehensive evaluation report by Sparks Engineering, Inc., a San Antonio-based consultant specializing in existing structures, found that “The bridge was nearing the end of its useful life, primarily because of degradation of the 1914 cables and anchor rods.” The City of Waco lost no time in contracting with the Missouri Valley Bridge and Iron Company and moved forward with an extensive $12.5 million restoration plan and a completion deadline of late spring or early summer of 2023.

Texas’ historic suspension bridge over the Brazos remains suspended in its setting—nestled between Indian Springs Park on the west side, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Park on the east side. On the south side, stand bronze figures depicting a trail boss with a herd of longhorn cattle on the Chisholm trail—reminders of the bridge’s importance since its creation and bridging the more than one hundred and fifty years between the bridge’s beginning in 1870 and today.

This has been another episode of Texas Brave and Strong—The best little podcast in Texas. Thanks for tuning in, remember to subscribe, and share this podcast with a friend. Ya’ll come back.


John Neely Bryan, the founder of Dallas, was a squatter! Bryan was born in Lincoln County, Tennessee to a prosperous farm family in December of 1810. He studied law in Nashville, received a license to practice law, and then moved to Memphis where he soon came down with cholera. As treatment, he was advised to go to Arkansas and live an outdoor life with the Cherokee. After four years with the Cherokee, he left his Indian friends. Stirred by stories of generous land grants in the new Republic of Texas, he crossed into Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) and traveled to Coffee’s Trading Post on the north bank of the Red River where Coffee also operated a ferry between Indian Territory and Texas.

As legend then has it, John Neely Bryan; his Indian pony, Walking Wolf; along with Ned, his Cherokee Indian companion; and Bryan’s dog, Tubby, crossed the river in 1839 and came to the Three Forks area of northeast Texas. There, Bryan staked a spot on the limestone bluff above the Trinity River with a buckskin flag marked with his name. He returned two years later—in the Fall of 1841—with the plan of gaining a grant for the land from the Republic of Texas and establishing a ferry crossing and trading post on the Trinity.

The location was an excellent choice. The settlement of Austin had been chosen as the Republic’s capital and the military had already been dispatched to open a road from Austin to the Red River to facilitate immigration. The settlement which grew up on the Texas side of the Coffee river crossing was named Preston and the road into Texas became the Preston Road, connecting both the Coffee Crossing and the nearby Colbert’s Crossing to Bryan’s door.

Most likely, Bryan did not immediately realize that he was, in fact, a squatter. The previous January, the Republic of Texas had granted a large tract of land to a 19-member investment group, led by W. S. Peters of Louisville, Kentucky. Initially known as the Cross Timbers Colony, the grant was soon simply referred to as The Peters’ Colony. It included the land which Bryan claimed and subsequently settled.

In 1844, the Republic authorized the building of another road. This one from the Northeastern tip of Texas to connect with the Preston Road about a mile above Bryan’s cabin. Bryan’s land claim became an important crossroads from the Red River south to Austin.

Also in 1844, despite a festering land ownership issue, Bryan had the village of Dallas surveyed. It was laid out in blocks two hundred feet by two hundred feet and extended eight blocks west-to-east and ten blocks north-to-south. Bryan sold his first lot in 1845, but most likely did not patent (register) the Dallas survey until 1854.

By then, the Peters’ Company had largely abandoned their colony, following an armed confrontation with unhappy Dallas County settlers who drove the Peters Company representative, Henry O. Hedgcoxe, from the county and seized the company’s records placing them “where they would never be found.” The event, known as the Hedgcoxe War, demonstrated such strong public sentiment against the Peters Colony that the Texas legislature ultimately agreed to allow settlers to register claims and agreed to grant clear titles to them. The Peters’ Group was given new land in Texas.

To complicate matters further, an even earlier Republic of Texas grant to John Grigsby, a soldier of the Battle of San Jacinto, was discovered in the 1870s. This grant covered much of what had become downtown Dallas and created ownership complications and lawsuits for decades.

Bryan went on to lead a tragic life. Initially he was active in affairs of the community he had founded and in the creation of Dallas County and making Dallas its county seat. In 1849 he caught gold fever and left his wife Margaret Beeman Bryan, the daughter of one of Dallas’ first settlers, and joined the California gold rush. He returned after a year with empty pockets. He was morose and began drinking heavily, losing interest in what he called “his town.” In 1852 after squandering much of the money earned from lot sales, he sold the remaining townsite and the ferry concession to Alexander Cockrell.

In 1855, believing a man had insulted his wife Margaret, he shot the man. Thinking he had killed him, Bryan fled on horseback. His lawyer followed getting Bryan to sign papers necessary to take care of his business and family while absent. The wounded man recovered and agreed to not press charges. It is believed Bryan knew this, but nonetheless fled to the Creek Nation in Indian Territory and then returned to California to again mine unsuccessfully for gold. It was six years before he started home to Dallas and his family, arriving in the Spring of 1861. His children did not recognize him.

When the Civil War began shortly after his arrival home, he left again to fight in the war. He was discharged the following year due to his age and poor health. Upon returning he was active again in Dallas’civic affairs for more than a decade. However, by 1874, Bryan was apparently suffering as a long-term alcoholic and his mental health had deteriorated. In 1877, his son Edward Bryan had him admitted to the Texas State Lunatic Asylum in Austin (subsequently renamed The Austin State Hospital) where he died and was buried later that year.

Decades later, Dallas honored its founder with construction of the Bryan Pergola—located on the Grassy Knoll in Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas. A replica of Bryan’s original one-room log cabin sits nearby on the grounds of the former Dallas County Court House building—constructed in 1892 and known as Old Red.

John Neely Bryan, early Texas pioneer and successful squatter had a dream to help open Texas to settlement and build a city. Today, Dallas stands on the banks of the Trinity River as testimony of his dream come true.

This has been another episode of Texas Brave and Strong—The best little podcast in Texas. Thanks for tuning in, remember to subscribe, and share this podcast with a friend. Ya’ll come back.

Cowboys Tie One On!

Jesse James did, it so did John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Billy the Kid, even Annie Oakley did it. What did they do? They tied a big, colorful “wild rag” around their necks. You might know wild rags as bandanas, neckerchiefs, buckaroo scarves, or neck rags. Whatever you call ‘em they are iconic symbols of the wild West. And westerners like outlaw Butch Cassidy or famous rancher Charles Goodnight used these important accessories in a long list of ways.

The wild rag started in the mid-1800s as a piece of used, patterned flour sack tied around the neck for warmth and protection from trail dust—especially important if you were riding drag behind a herd of longhorns. Or, in the case of Billy the Kid, hiding your face while you robbed a stagecoach. You could even use one to wrap up the stolen loot.

Cowboys quickly discovered lots of uses for their wild rags. They could strain water or coffee through ‘em, protect the back of their necks from sunburn, wipe off sweat, use it as a bandage in an emergency, hobble a horse with it, or tie down a hat. Wild rags could substitute for potholders, tablecloths, or dish towels. You could even clean a gun with it. Plus, wild rags just looked good and were a reflection of a cowpoke’s style. Whether a cowboy or cowgirl chose fancy patterns or solid colors, the wild rag was useful as well as a fashion statement.

The first flour-sack scarves quickly evolved to patterned cotton squares made for the purpose, and for those who could afford it, scarves made of silk. Lest you think a silk scarf might not be practical, think again. Silk stays warmer than cotton or wool (and it’s not itchy). Silk also wicks away moisture, wears well, feels good, and won’t chap your neck.

Wearing a wild rag is high on the do list for proper cowhands along with:

•When on horseback, don’t wave at someone, nod instead.

•Say howdy, not hello.

•Never ride another man’s horse.

•Never wear another man’s hat.

•Be courteous to ladies.

•Don’t cheat at cards.

•Be careful where you point your gun.

•Keep an extra wild rag your saddlebag.

Tempted to try a western wild rag? Here are some things to know. Wild rags are large, measuring at least 30” or 40” square. Some are as large as 50” square. To wear a wild rag you have to decide how you are going to tie your scarf. Will you fold it in a triangle, place the triangle in front of your neck, wrap the ends around your neck once or twice and then tie a simple square knot in front? Maybe you’ll prefer a classic, but more complicated buckaroo square knot. It’s my favorite. There are lots of wild rag websites to teach you how to tie a variety of knots. Including how to tie a wild rag as a cowgirl hair accessory.

For variety, instead of knots, you can use simple or elaborate scarf slides made of everything from woven leather to carved wood, or metal. Rings made from antique silver spoons work, too. Scarf slides add a bit more pizzaz to your western look.

Caring for a silk wild rag doesn’t mean you have to send it to the dry cleaners. Instead wash it by hand in cold water, but don’t wring or scrunch it. You can even machine wash your scarf carefully. Put your wild rag in a pillowcase with other delicate items and wash it on gentle cycle in cold water. Stretch it out flat on a flat towel and roll both up in a long roll a couple of times to absorb the moisture. Unroll and let it dry away from direct sun. Wrinkled? Iron it under a towel or gently steam it, and you’re ready to wear it again.

Whether you’re a real cowpoke or a western wanna-be, have a bit of fun with a classic symbol of the Old West. Choose a wild rag and tie one on! Way to go cowpoke!

This has been another episode of Texas Brave and Strong—The best little podcast in Texas. Thanks for tuning in, remember to subscribe, and share this podcast with a friend. Ya’ll come back.

UFO or Hoax?

In the Spring of 1897, citizens of Texas towns began excitedly reporting night sightings of “airships” sailing above the countryside. Starting on April 6th in Denison TX, a sighting of a brilliantly illuminated “airship” flying about a quarter of a mile high, and moving at a speed “upward of 50 miles per hour” was reported by a “trustworthy man.” The next evening in Gutherie, Oklahoma, multiple people claimed to have seen a fast-moving craft flashing bright search lights. The number of airship and moving light sightings quickly grew over the next eleven days that April, with Texas sightings reported from Corsicana, Weatherford, Paris, Dallas, Fort Worth, Bonham, and a long list of other Texas towns.

On Saturday, April 17th, 1897, the residents of Aurora, a small town in the northwest corner of what is today the Dallas Fort Worth metroplex, were shocked when, about 6:00 in the morning, a large flying object came across the sky, traveled over the town square at a declining speed, finally crashing into a three-story water-well tower on Judge J.S. Proctor’s property outside of town. The object then exploded, sending wreckage flying across the farm and leaving the remains of Proctor’s tower and water tank in his flower garden.

Two days later the Dallas Morning News carried an account of the crash written by S.E. Haydon, an Aurora resident. Haydon reported that there had been one passenger aboard, assumed to be the pilot. According to The Fort Worth Register, the body was badly disfigured; however, witnesses believed that based on what could be seen, “he was not an inhabitant of this world.” The Morning News went on to report that metal from the airship was extremely heavy and looked like it might be an unknown alloy of aluminum and silver. Documents covered with undecipherable hieroglyphics were reportedly found on the corpse’s body. T.J. Weems, an Army Signal Officer stationed at Fort Worth, visited the sight of the crash and speculated that the corpse was “a Martian.”

Alien or not, the Aurora citizens collected the remains and on Sunday morning gave it a Christian burial in the Aurora Cemetery. Wreckage from the crash was dumped into a well on Proctor’s farm. The well was subsequently sealed. Some wreckage may have been buried in the grave with the suspected alien.

Interestingly, the reports of sightings didn’t stop with the Aurora crash. Between the crash and May 13th, fifty-four additional sightings were reported.!Around 1945, Brawley Oats purchased Proctor’s property, cleaned out the well, and used it for water. Later he developed serious arthritis which he believed was caused by well water contaminated with high levels of aluminum. He sealed the well with concrete and built a farm outbuilding over it in 1957.

A hoax story grew up around the incident based on research conducted by a one-time mayor of Aurora, Barbara Brammer who believed that the fact Aurora was losing residents at the time of the crash inspired Haydon to create a story to generate interest in the town. This point of view was also forwarded 100 years after the event by former Aurora citizen Etta Pegues who claimed that Judge Proctor never had a windmill. This was refuted later when a UFO Hunters investigation unearthed the base of the wind tower.

Further investigations by the television program UFO Files in 2008, turned up two eyewitnesses to the event, both in their 90s at the time of their interviews. Mary Evans said that she remembered that her parents went to see the crash site, but would not take her. Charlie Stephens, age 10 at the time, claimed to have seen the airship trailing smoke as it headed toward Aurora. He wanted to see the crash site, but was told to finish his chores instead. His father did go to the see the wreckage.

Over time, the Aurora Cemetery Association has refused several requests for exhumation of the grave. The UFO Hunters program staff did find an unmarked grave near other 1890 graves, but radar could not determine what remains existed.

Was Aurora the site of an airship crash resulting in the death of its alien pilot, or was it a hoax?!Five generations of the Haydon family passed down the crash story as a true event, consistent with their ancestor’s report to the Dallas Morning News. The State of Texas sidestepped the question of truth or hoax when it erected a historical plaque labeling the Aurora crash as a legend. It’s an interesting, unsolved mystery. !What brought the Aurora crash to mind for me (more than 125 years later) was the growing number of unexplained bright, fast moving light sightings around the country in 2022 (especially in December) and the increased government focus on UFOs (Unidentified Flying Objects), which recently have been reclassified by the government as UAPs or Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon. Are today’s reported sightings a repeat of the mysterious UFO sightings of 1879? A question yet to be answered. One thing we do know is the government has a new interest in the topic.

Here are a few of the recent, publicly-announced government activities researching events in the sky that cannot be identified as aircraft or as known natural phenomena. In other words, UFOs or UAPs.!•In November 2021,The Department of Defense Announced the establishment of the Airborne Object Identification and Management Synchronization Group—the successor to the U.S. Navy’s Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force.

•After only eight months of existence, the Pentagon’s office tasked with investigating and tracking UAPs — or unidentified aerial phenomena—announced it will look beyond the stars for objects of interest.

•May 2022, U.S. House of Representatives, Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence’s Subcommittee on Counterterrorism, Counterintelligence, and Counterproliferation held a hearing on UAPs and the status of Department of Defense research—the first congressional hearing on UFOs in more than 50 years!

•July 2022,The Pentagon announced that it has renamed and expanded the authority of the government’s chief UFO office. Formerly known as the Airborne Object Identification and Management Group, the office will now be known as the All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office. The renamed office will also look into unidentified objects that are submerged in water or deemed “transmedium.” Don’t you just love government terminology?

•October 2022, NASA selected 16 individuals to participate in its NEW independent study team on unidentified anomalous phenomena (UAPs). The agency is not part of the Defense Department’s Airborne Object Identification and Management Synchronization Group.

What these organizations find and report remains to be seen. But the history of the UFOs or UAPs—if you prefer—all started with a reported crash in the small Texas town of Aurora in 1897.

This has been another episode of Texas Brave and Strong—The best little podcast in Texas.

Thanks for tuning in, remember to subscribe and share this podcast with a friend. Ya’ll come back.

Sam Houston’s Three Brides

Most Texans are familiar with Sam Houston, and know him as a Tennessee Congressman who became Tennessee’s Governor, then resigned his office and moved to Texas just in time to join the Texas Revolution. Houston became the hero of the Battle of San Jacinto (the final battle in the war which freed Texas from Mexico.) He was twice president of the Republic of Texas, a Senator for Texas when it joined the Union, and two-time governor of Texas.

While this part of Houston’s history is reasonably well known, many Texans don’t know about Sam Houston’s earlier life or about his three wives, one of whom was a beautiful Cherokee.

Here’s some of what you might not know about Sam Houston. . .

Houston was born (one of nine children) on his family’s plantation near Lexington, Kentucky in 1793. When his father died in 1807, Sam’s widowed mother moved the family to Baker Creek, Tennessee, where she farmed and bought an interest in a general store. Two years later, at age 16, young Sam ran away from home to live with Chief Oolooteka’s large Cherokee tribe on Hiwassee Island, at the confluence of the Tennessee and Hiwassee Rivers.

Oolooteka, known to white men as Chief Jolly, took a liking to the young man who had arrived on the island with his rifle and a copy of Homer’s Iliad. The chief adopted Houston as his own son and named him Colleneh—the Raven. Houston was accepted by the tribe as a Cherokee and befriended by two tribal brothers. John and Joseph Rogers who were of half-European and half-Cherokee descent—sons of a prominent Scots trader. The two Rogers brothers went on to become rich and powerful forces in the Cherokee nation.

Houston stayed with the tribe until he left to fight in the War of 1812. During the war, Houston quickly moved up the ranks and became a protege of General Andrew Jackson. He was wounded in the war and following his recovery, was appointed as an Indian agent to the Cherokee. Houston left the army in 1818 and went on to study and then practice law.

Getting into politics, he served in the U.S. Congress from Tennessee between 1823 and 1827, after which he decided to run for governor, was elected, and then resigned the following year after an unfortunate and somewhat scandalous arranged marriage with a young Tennessee woman from a prominent family, Eliza Allen. Houston’s Biographer, Marquis James, wrote that Eliza had wept while donning her wedding gown, that she felt that she loved another and her affections had been pledged to someone else. Eliza left Houston. He followed and ask her to return to Nashville with him. She refused. He and his bride of less than three months parted. The reasons for the break up were never fully explained. This mystery continues to lead to speculation among historians today.

Heart broken, Houston returned to the Cherokees. Tiana Rogers Gentry, the half sister of Houston’s friends, the Rogers Brothers, had been only ten years old when Houston had first arrived on Hiwassee Island. Now Tiana was a young widow. Others described her as tall, slender, and beautiful. Her first husband, David Gentry, had been a prosperous, half-Cherokee blacksmith, who was killed during a border skirmish with Osage Indians.

Tiania’s Rogers family Cherokee lineage was prestigious and it was appropriate that the young widow marry a tribal chief’s son. And so she did. Tiana and The Raven were married in a Cherokee ceremony, despite the fact that Houston’s brief first marriage had not yet ended in divorce.

The two established a large log cabin and trading post named Wigwam Neosho near Fort Gibson, Oklahoma in Indian Territory. In 1832, Houston made a business trip to New York and Washington, D.C. While there, anti-Jackson Congressman, William Stanbery made a speech on the floor of Congress accusing Houston of misdeeds around the bidding for a supply contract for Indian removal. Irate, Houston wrote to Stanbery, who refuse to answer Houston’s letters. Houston confronted Stanbery on Pennsylvania Avenue and a fight ensued. Houston beat Stanbery with a hickory cane and Stanbery tried to shoot Houston, but the gun (pressed against Houston’s chest) misfired. Congress arrested Houston and charged him with contempt. Houston engaged Francis Scott Key as his lawyer. The trial in the Capitol building was high profile, lasted for weeks, and the galleries were packed with curious citizens. Houston was articulate in his own defense, quoting Shakespeare, Blackstone and the Apostle Paul. Although he was found guilty, his reprimand was a mere slap on the wrist. More than one rose was tossed at his feet by swooning ladies in the crowd.

Newspaper coverage and word of mouth sent his visibility and reputation soaring and he soon left for Texas—after asking Tiana to come with him. She demurred, saying she wanted to stay at Wigwam Neosho, their home and trading post. Some speculate that Houston left for Texas on a mission directed by his mentor, President Jackson, to encourage Texas to join the Union.

Years after Houston’s departure to Texas, Tiana married Sam McGrady, a whiskey runner between Ft. Smith, Arkansas and Ft. Gibson, Oklahoma.

Tiana Rogers Gentry Houston McGrady died of pneumonia in 1838, and was buried in Wilson Rock Cemetery, Indian Territory. In 1904, her grave was exhumed and her remains were laid to rest at Ft. Gibson National Cemetery (Oklahoma) in the circle around the flag among the graves of army officers and their wives. The formal funeral ceremony was attended by hundreds. In an error, the tombstone read “Talahina, Indian wife of General Sam Houston.”Her name was later corrected and a new stone erected.

Sam Houston, The Raven, married again, but not until his Cherokee bride, Tiana, had died.

In the summer of 1839, Houston made a horse-buying trip to Alabama where he was introduced to Margaret Moffette Lea at a strawberry festival. Following a year of courtship, the two were married on May 8,1840, despite the advice of Houston’s friends who believed the 19-year-old Margaret was too young for the 47-year-old Houston.

During their twenty-three year marriage, Margaret bore him eight children, caused him to moderate his drinking, and convinced him to join the Baptist Church. Margaret was at his side when he died in 1863. “Texas, Texas, Margaret,” were the final words of three-time husband and Texas hero—Sam Houston.

Hello Hico!

Hello Hico, Welcome back!

Some small Texas towns have prospered and grown during the decades. Others have boomed and then settled into obscurity.  Hico in Hamilton County appeared to be in the sad, second category, but determined citizens in Hico are bringing Hico back. Increasingly it is on the list of small towns to visit in Texas and (in my opinion) for good reason.

In 1856, a few years prior to the Civil War, the rush to Texas was on. That year, eight families arrived in covered wagons and settled on Honey Creek in the northern corner of Hamilton County. In 1860, John Rankin Alfred and his family, also traveling in covered wagons, rode into Central Texas and joined the Honey Creek settlement. Alfred started a small business selling goods he’d brought by wagon and engaged in the cattle business. When the community petitioned for a post office, Alfred became postmaster and named the now official (but not yet incorporated) town Hico (HY-koh), after his birthplace, Hico, in Calloway County, Kentucky.

When the Texas Central Railroad (which was part of the famous Katy Railroad) was built two and a half miles away, like so many Texas towns, the citizens decided that if the community was to prosper, they needed to relocate the town adjacent to the rail line. So they moved. Ten years later, two major fires destroyed downtown’s wooden buildings. The town rebuilt with big blocks of limestone.

The move to the rail line proved to be a smart one. By 1883, Hico was incorporated and became a major center of Texas trade. Hico’s grain market exploded. By the turn of the century, Hico was shipping more grain than any other location on the Texas Central rail line. By 1907, the cotton shipments through Hico were in the tens of thousands of bales.

Business was good and downtown Hico boomed with almost one hundred businesses—from hotels and grocery stores to both a broom and a candy factory. An 1895 opera house, a theatre, and tented roller rink offered fun and entertainment.

But by 1955, the trading boom—which had been fueled by train transportation—fizzled and the town’s business and population declined. A situation aggravated by major interstate construction bypassing the community.

But today, more than sixty-five years later, when one might have expected Hico to be a near ghost town, it is a thriving example of a historic small town creating a new history. From 2019 to 2020, the population grew by 12.5% to 1,780 people.  Not a big town. but a growing one with lots to offer. Main street is lined with handsome, historic stone buildings from more than 100 years ago—some structures sport old fashioned ads painted on their sides — the billboards of the past. A walk down Main Street is a trip back in time. Except—these old fashioned buildings now house charming inns and restaurants, boutiques, and various shops.  The newly restored 1896 Midland Hotel recreates the hospitality of the past in its fourteen guest rooms, while its Chop House restaurant serves up thoroughly up-to-date dishes with a flavor of Texas and the 1896 Saloon has drinks to help you “wet your whistle” as early Texans said.

A Texas-history mystery also beckons in downtown Hico. Was a Hico resident named William Henry “Ollie” Roberts, known as Brushy Bill Roberts, none other than the outlaw Billy the Kid? Many believe that he was. Brushy Bill claimed that Pat Garrett, the man who took credit for shooting Billy the Kid, really shot another outlaw named Billy Barlow and that he, Billy the Kid, slipped into the night and vanished, becoming another miscreant GTT—“Gone to Texas.”

The full story is an interesting one and there are lots of clues—from scars on Brushy Bill that match scars where it is known Billy the Kid was wounded, plus testimonials from other noted outlaws of the time that Brushy Bill was in fact Billy the Kid. Brushy Bill died in Hico in 1950 before he received the pardon he was hoping for from New Mexico’s governor—a pardon promised in 1879! He is buried down the road from Hico in a cemetery in Hamilton, Texas. Was Brushy Bill really Bill the Kid? Stop by the Billy the Kid museum in downtown Hico and decide for yourself. On the way out of town, check out Wiseman House chocolates in a 1908 red-roofed Victorian house on West Grubbs Street for a sweet end to a visit to Hico—a historic town writing a new chapter in its Texas history. 

High Society Comes to Texas

In February of 1892, The New York Times published its official list of the creme de la creme of New York Society— 400 individuals, a mix of “Nobs”— old money families such as the Astors  and “Swells”—the nouveau riche including the Vanderbilts. It was the Guilded Age in New York and the city’s influence helped city directories become popular across the country.

In 1890, the Census had revealed that Dallas was the most populous city in Texas with 38,067 residents. It was followed in size by Galveston with 29,084 residents and Houston with a population of 27,557.

Texas’ largest city caught the attention of Holland Brothers Publishing, a company looking to expand its market in high society lists of major cities. Dallas seemed ripe for its own list of who’s who in society and Voila! the Red Book of Dallas, Texas was born. The volume had the distinction of being the first Red Book published in Texas. And of course, the book’s cover was red. One can only imagine the buzz this created in the city.

To fill the book’s 137 pages, in what was still somewhat of a frontier town, Holland Brothers Publishing needed lots of filler content. But let’s start with the preface from the publisher.

“In presenting the [Red Book] to the public, the publishers feel they have supplied a decided need of an important element of the community. To facilitate the requirements of social life and place persons in direct communication with the representatives of the different phases of the best local society, this directory is intended. It is here also that new residents of this city may find the names of any and all persons whom they may desire to include in their visiting list, and whom they wish to meet in any social way.”

The small volume contained a high society list of 3,245 adults and children from Dallas, supplemented by 333 from Oak Cliff. If the household had a designated day for accepting in-person visits (or calls, the proper term), that was noted. Also included were the membership lists of eight local clubs, four for gentlemen and four clubs for ladies.

Based on the Red Book, Dallas in the late 1800s appears to be a “clubby” city.

The Dallas Club for gentlemen was by far the largest and owned its own building—a handsome four story, brick and stone structure completed in 1888 for $45,000 and located at the corner of Commerce and Poydras Streets.  The Dallas Club was central to the activities of business, civic, and professional men of the city: however, ladies were allowed for special receptions and parties for visiting dignitaries.

The Idlewild Club was a much smaller men’s club — about three dozen members— founded with the purpose of giving four grand balls each season, beginning with a ball during the State Fair of Texas. It’s hard to imagine that the wives of these men didn’t provide input for the planning of these events, whether they were asked to or not.

The Ladies’ Shakespeare Club, founded in1855, was for the sole purpose of studying Shakespeare’s plays. Membership was limited to 45 members.

The thirty-two member Ladies Pierian Chatauqua Club reported its object was mutual improvement of its members, the social aspects were a side issue. Apparently a serious literary group.

Not to be outdone, The twenty-one member Quaero Club adopted as its course of study “A new method for the study of English literature, which included reading current literature and a weekly review by critics.

Two other ladies’ clubs, the Standard Club and CLMA club, also existed to study literature.

The Phoenix Club for Jewish gentleman was for the mutual benefit and mental, moral, and social advancement for its members and had sixty-five members.

The Social Ethics Club was open to any unmarried gentleman over the age of twenty-one and its purpose was to promote the social, musical and dramatic culture of its twenty-seven members.

Fleshing out the Red Book was a section on Etiquette.  While it contained much that was perhaps less relevant in Dallas than in NYC, the seven pages were—no doubt—still of interest to many Dallasites.

Here are some examples:

Regarding the handshake: “The custom of shaking hands is gradually disappearing from society.  . . .A lady is not expected to shake hands upon introduction. A gentleman has no right to extend his hand first to a lady.”

Gentlemen’s Attire: “Evening dress is always in order after dark, never in the daytime. Either white or black ties may be worn with full dress; for balls a white tie is better.” 

This advice conjured up an image for me of formally-dressed men and women dealing with Dallas’ dirt streets in the late 1800’s. While it’s true that in 1882, the city began to experiment with unseasoned wooden blocks set into some dirt streets, with no underlying support, heavy rains simply caused them to sink into the mud and created  more problems than the mud alone had. Even wooden sidewalks (where they existed) would not fully alleviate the problem of ankle deep mud! It was 1899 before Main Street had asphalt paving.

As for calling cards, the Red Book revealed special etiquette.

And it involves secret messaging that only those in-the-know, would know.

“One must remember when visiting, to turn up a corner of their calling card.

The upper right corner indicates a visit.

The upper left corner signals congratulations.

The lower right corner says adieu.

The lower left corner expresses condolences.

Turning the entire left end indicates a call on the whole family.”

Most of the remaining etiquette in the Red Book illustrates forms of invitations and proper responses for wedding announcements and invitations to special events.

What I found especially interesting about the Red Book were the advertisements.  The six story Oriental Hotel billed itself as having the largest and most luxuriously appointed rooms in the state and featured an impressive line drawing of its facility.

The Parisian Millinery Company promised the very latest in hats and bonnets in season.  And reported receiving goods, direct from New York, every week. Also a hairdressing department with one of the finest eastern hair dressers.

You’ll find ads for steam carpet cleaning, fancy groceries, the largest moving wagons in the state, fine footwear, fine commercial printing, pianos, the Dallas Natatorium, Turkish baths, dental parlors, photographers, fine diamonds and watches, druggists, banjos and violins, gents furnishings and hats, all paper and artists supplies, mineral soda pop, an ice factory and cold storage, sheet music, sewing machines, tents, awnings and mattresses, horse shoes, plumbing, wine, typewriters and rubber stamps, railroads, Havana cigars, and more.  And of course, an ad for the largest retail store in the South —Sanger Brothers—whose Dallas store ad boasts of  118,500 feet of floor space and 250 employees ready to serve you. Plus mentions their branch in Waco with 125 employees. And the convenience of mail order. The Dallas Red Book is more than a social register. It is an interesting look at some aspects of life in one Texas city in 1895.

1831 Letter From Texas

Mrs. Mary Austin Holley, a cousin of noted Texan, Stephen F. Austin, was a keen observer of daily life on the Texas frontier, before the Texas Revolution. In letters back home to Connecticut, she reported her astute observations. What follows are comments from three of her letters written in 1831 from Bolivar, Texas.

. . . The people of Texas, as yet, have little time for [business]. Everybody is occupied with his domestic arrangements and plans for supplying his immediate wants. It is found to be easier to raise or manufacture such articles as are needed [by] the family or to do without what things may be desired, than to obtain them from abroad, or to employ an individual to scour the country in search of such. . . . People live too far apart to beg or borrow often, and few trouble themselves to send anything to market, though they have much to spare. They had rather give to you of their abundance, if you will send someone to their doors [to get it]. . . . If they want any article of first necessity, coffee for instance, which is much used, they will send some of their chickens, butter and eggs, to a neighboring family, newly arrived, and propose an exchange, as most newcomers bring with them some stores.  There is much of this kind of barter, provisions being so much more [plentiful] than money. . . .

In no country, with the usual attention to the arts of life, could more luxuries to the table be furnished. At present, vegetables, fruits, butter, eggs, and chicken sell very high in Brazoria; though they are yielded in every season of the year, in a profusion unexampled in any part of the world. The newcomer has to but plant his seeds in the ground, and collect a first supply of livestock to begin with. They need but little or no care afterwords, and the increase is astonishing. He brands his cattle and hogs and lets them run. They require no attention, but to see that they do not stray too far from home and become wild. A field once planted in pumpkins, seldom needs planting again. The scattered seed sow themselves, and the plants are cultivated with the corn. These pumpkins, often as large as a man can lift, have a sweet flavor and are very palatable.  A field of them is a curiosity, as they are in such numbers and so large. Sweet potatoes, also are cultivated with almost equal ease, and yield at times, five hundred bushels to the acre. Some of these potatoes weigh from four to seven pounds. Yet they sell at Brazoria at the enormous price of seventy-five cents a bushel. Corn is obtained in the prairie cane-breaks [during] the first year, when there is no time to prepare the land with the plow, by merely making a hole for the seed with a hoe. Cows and horses get their own living. The trees at this moment  (17th of December), are loaded with rich clusters of grapes, not very large, but of a delicious flavor. . . .

During my stay at Bolivar, we might have had every day, the finest of game, could anyone have been spared to take to the field with his gun. Our neighbor at one hunt, brought in three bears, a Mexican hog, a rabbit and two bee-trees. Our carpenter, without leaving his bench five minutes, killed several wild ducks, the finest I have ever tasted. . . .

Housekeepers should bring with them all indispensable articles for household use, together with as much common clothing (other clothing is not wanted) for themselves and their children as they conveniently can. Ladies, in particular, should remember that in a new country, they can not get things made at any moment, as in an old one, and that they will be sufficiently busy the first two years in arranging such things as they have, without obtaining more. It should also be done as a matter of economy. Where the population increases, beyond the increase of supplies, articles of necessity are dear. If on arrival you find a surplus on hand, it can be readily disposed of to advantage; for trade, by barter, is much practiced, and you buy provisions with coffee, calico, tea-kettles and saucepans, instead of cash. 

Those who must have a feather bed, had better bring it, for it would take too long to make one; and though the air swarms with live geese, a feather bed could not be got for love or money. Everybody should bring pillows and bed linens. Mattresses, such as are used in Louisiana—and they are very comfortable— are made of the moss which hangs on almost every tree. They cost nothing but the case and the trouble of preparing the moss. The case should be brought.

Domestic checks are best being cheap and light, and sufficiently strong.

The moss is prepared by burying it in the earth, until it is partially rotten. It is then washed very clean, dried, and picked. Then it is fit for use. These mattresses should be made very thick; and for those who like a warmer bed in winter, put layers of wool, well carded, taking care to keep this side up.

Every immigrant should bring mosquito bars. [A quick note—today we would call this item mosquito nets]  Since the middle of October, I have not found them necessary. They are indispensable in the summer season and are made from a thin species of muslin, manufactured for the purpose. Furniture, such as chairs and bureaus, can be brought in separate pieces and put together, cheaper and better, after arrival, than they can be purchased here, if purchased at all. But it must be recollected that very few articles of this sort are required, where houses are small and buildings expensive. . . .Tables are made by the house carpenter, which answer the purpose as well where nobody has better, and the chief concern is to get something to put upon them.

The maxim or [general truth] here, is—nothing is for show, but all for use. . . .

The common concerns of life are sufficiently exciting to keep the spirits buoyant, and prevent everything like ennui, [listlessness, and dissatisfaction]. Artificial wants are entirely forgotten in view of real ones, and self—eternal self—does not alone fill up the round of life. Delicate ladies find they can be useful and need not be vain. Even privations become pleasures: people become ingenious in overcoming difficulties. Many latent faculties are developed. They discover in themselves, powers they did not suspect themselves of possessing. Equally surprised and delighted at the discovery, they apply to their labors with all that energy and spirit that new hope and conscious strength inspire. . . .

A side note: Mrs. Mary Austin Holley’s letters indicate she was writing from Bolivar.  Where was Bolivar?

In 1830, Henry Austin, first cousin of Stephen F. Austin, established a cotton plantation in Brazoria County, on the Brazos River, 25 miles south of San Felipe and north along the Brazos River from the Gulf of Mexico. Austin established one of the first cotton gins in Brazoria County. He named his plantation Bolivar and established a town site with the same name. According to a contemporary account, “The land around Bolivar is the best in the Austin colony; clothed with heavy timber, with peach and cane undergrowth to the distance of six miles from the river. The bank of the river in front of the town is a high bluff of stiff red clay. At Bolivar, the timber tract is five or six miles wide and the road to the prairie is walled in with tall cane filling all the space between the trees.” It was from Here that Mrs. Mary Austin Holly penned her letters, a year later.