A Brief History of Central Texas
by Christopher Dow
When we look at the modern American landscape, it’s often difficult to visualize what it might have been like in the past. Much of the past is masked by the present—the new overlaying or replacing the old. And when we drive, it is usually with specific destinations in mind, leading us to see only the destination, not the scenery we pass through. And when our eye does roam over this old building or that old bridge, we record them just as features that are unimportant. But scratch the surface, and a whole new—or rather antique—world is revealed, whose hidden connections reach into our cities and towns, our homes, our work, and even our lives.
In Texas, you don’t have to scratch very deeply to see what came before. Human habitation of Texas goes back more than ten thousand years, but its settled history occupies approximately the same timespan as that of the United States since the American Revolution. San Antonio, the first chartered civil settlement in Texas, was founded as a Spanish mission in 1718 and became an official town in 1731. However the settled history of the state is a century younger.
Modern Texas history really begins after the Texas Revolution, which took place in 1836. Prior to that, Mexican Texas residents were mostly agrarians, usually limited to the coastal regions along the Gulf of Mexico and a few other locations, like San Antonio, that were settled and defended by the Mexican government troops. The population of the region in 1825 was only about 3,500, mostly because the region was so wild, untamed, and dangerous due to frequent Indian raids on the few settlers who did brave the hostile environment. In that same year, partly in an effort to drive back the Indians, the Mexican government began allowing immigrants from the United States to settle in Mexican Texas.
Twenty-four men termed "Empresarios" were given large land grants and allowed to recruit settlers from the United States to live under the auspices of the Mexican government. The first of these was Moses Austin, who died before he could follow through, bequeathing his land grant to his son, Stephen F. Austin. The Austins are now the most famous of the Empresarios, but others, such as John R. Harris, also left their historical mark. Harris founded Harrisburg, which predated Houston by ten years but is now within the confines of the city, and Harris County, which is now completely occupied by Houston, was named for him.
But after the Texas Revolution—and before Texas joined the growing number of American states in 1845—settlers began to seek new lives on the burgeoning frontier. Today, thanks to Westerns, most people visualize the Texas frontier as rugged desert, but in fact, until after the Civil War, the line of the frontier was much closer to the Gulf Coast. San Antonio might be considered the westernmost point on that line, but really, the Brazos River was a more accurate boundary. Beyond that, the Indians still ruled, and settlers who ventured into their territory risked violent death.
But that didn’t stop them. By 1834, two years before the Texas Revolution, more than 37,000 people were in Texas, looking for land to make their home. But more permanent settlement had to wait for the revolution to establish Texas as its own republic. When the major battles—the Alamo, Goliad, and San Jacinto—had accomplished that, the new republic was ready to flex its muscles and move people into the frontier lying beyond the Brazos River, pushing the line of the frontier to the western edge of a swath of Texas known as the Texas Blackland Prairies.
The Blackland Prairies run about three hundred miles from the Red River in North Texas to San Antonio, occupying most of the territory between the Brazos River and the Balcones Fault, which lifted up the Edwards Plateau to form the more rugged and arid Hill Country. The temperate grassland ecoregion of the Blackland Prairies held rich, dark soil—the kind of dirt that farmers love. And others before them loved the region as well. Some of the character of the Blackland Prairies is said to be due to hunter-gatherers who occupied it from pre-Clovis times up until the era of Anglo settlement. During that 10,000-year span, they often staged controlled burns to augment natural burns to keep the prairie clear for grasslands that attracted huge herds of bison. Those numerous burns over the millennia contributed ash that further blackened the already deep dark-gray alkaline clay of the region, and the resulting soil is often referred to locally as “black gumbo” and “black velvet.”
Right from the beginning of settlement of this region, farmers coveted this excellent soil, but the Indian tribes who lived there had a prior claim and wouldn’t be driven out peacefully. Forts were constructed in various locations throughout the region to protect the settlers, not always with effective results for the settlers, and never for the tribes that called it home. Though the tribes tried their best to keep the settlers out of their territory, in the end they were driven out by disease and war, leaving the Blackland Prairies to the farmers and ranchers.
Many of those settlers were Czech immigrants who entered Texas at Indianola, along with the German immigrants who settled mainly south and west of Austin and San Antonio. Indianola, a former Texas port of entry on Matagorda Bay near present-day Port O’Connor, was the second-busiest port in Texas after Galveston until hurricanes in 1875 and 1886 wiped the town off the map.
With the forts and settlers came trails that eventually grew into roads. Many early roads through the region have been lost to time, but over the decades, some developed into major arteries for their time, carrying people and goods between settlements that eventually grew into towns. Perhaps the most significant route that developed to provide north–south access through the Central Texas region is Texas State Highway 95.
Sandwiched between the arable Blackland Prairies to the east and the Edwards Plateau and the ranch lands of the Hill Country to the west, SH 95, in a sense, marks the line of the frontier until nearly the beginnings of the the 20th century. It also is a living history of a Texas that seems distant but that is, in reality, just a step into the past—a past that remains largely visible today.