Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Tracing native trails across Austin

This is a post of an article that ran in the Austin American Statesman, October 24, 2015, by Michael Barnes, about work I've done on old Indian trails in and around Austin, Texas. I've added some additional side-bar photos beyond what was feasible in original article. Some additional footnotes added as well.

Michael's article wound up in his latest book, Indelible Austin volume II, 2018

Tracing native trails across Austin

USGS 1896 map with old Indian trails in and around Austin
You’ve heard of the butterfly whose wingbeats, ultimately, started a hurricane? What about the ant whose tiny track became a freeway?

Like humans — and water, for that matter — land insects tend to follow the path of least resistance. Their tracks are sometimes followed by small mammals, then beaten wider and deeper by larger mammals, and ultimately blazed by humans with their lumbering livestock.
During their “entrada” into Texas, Spanish explorers retraced established American Indian trails. Their “caminos,” in turn, were followed by Anglo-Americans, African-Americans, German-Americans and other settlers.

These trails almost always became roads, and some were eventually converted into railroads or freeways. Now, modern highways often bypass the ancient tracks and trails because, with engineering and construction advances, they can — and often should — preserve what’s there. Early railroads, however, almost always followed those paths of least resistance whenever possible.

Richard Denney, an avocational historian of uncommon diligence, has closely studied Austin’s earliest byways.

“Among history nuts, there are some who are particularly fascinated with old trails,” Denney says. “There is actually a name these people sometimes call themselves: ‘rut nuts.’”

Swales and ruts are the physical remains of old trails.

The transient nature of Denney’s upbringing in a military family made him all the more keen to dig into the history of Austin when he settled in the area in 1972. He also was curious about his family’s roots here — his mother’s relatives go back to pre-Civil War Central Texas in little towns such as Smithwick, Liberty Hill, Briggs and Florence.

"Defeat Hollow near the Oasis on Lake Travis was named for an encounter between one of my ancestors, Joel Harris, an early settler on Hudson’s Bend, and Indians, probably Comanches, hence the source for Comanche Peak next to the Oasis,” Denney says. “I have another ancestor — a great-great-grandmother — whose burial location was once lost to the family’s collective memory. Turns out, she was buried right here in Austin as a Confederate widow in the Texas State Cemetery.”

There’s no field guide to the native trails of Austin. Yet Denney has assembled considerable data from a number of sources and synthesized them into a rough map. First clue: The multipronged El Camino Real de los Tejas of the Spanish period, which is well-documented, likely followed some of those paths created by Indians.

Frank Brown’s unpublished “Annals of Travis County and the City of Austin: From the Earliest Times to the Close of 1875” — available in typescript at the Austin History Center and other libraries — describes a trail used by American Indians running south to north in Austin, which Brown called, naturally, the “Trail Going North,” adding that “this trail was found here by the first white explorers that visited the site now occupied by the capital city.”

So where was the Trail Going North? South of the river, it looks to follow South Congress Avenue. North, it predicts the path of MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) and other major modern roads.

Then there’s the Mount Bonnell Trail to the northwest.

Denney says that Julia Lee Sinks, author and historian, was an early settler who arrived in 1840. She lived on West Pecan Street — now West Sixth Street — and wrote of “the beaten track of the Indians into town from the pass of Mount Bonnell.”

Bigfoot Wallace, a famous Texas Ranger, Denney says, lived in the rock shelter on Mount Bonnell for a period and recalled it being “right on the old Indian trail leading down to Austin.”

Denney emphasizes that these two corridors were used by Indians not just for raids but also for trade in such things as flintrock.

More hints physical and historical

1936 historical marker for Fort Colorado
Other clues help trace the trails: Forts such as Fort Colorado — first put down at the mouth of Walnut Creek in the 1830s [1], then moved north to a spot near present-day Martin Luther King Boulevard and Webberville Road — were sited to allow soldiers to intercept the movement of Indians. Also, river fords, such as the one across the Colorado at Shoal Creek, would have been shared by Indians. Last, the recorded locations of interactions of settlers and Indians can tell us a lot.

Newspaper article from 1844 about Simpson children

“Here’s one of my favorites: In 1842 [2], early Austin suffered what one might call the ‘Yogurt Shop Murders’ of its day,” Denney says. “A Mrs. Simpson, living on West Pecan about three blocks west of Congress, had two children — a daughter 14, a son, 12 — abducted by Indians while the children were in the adjacent valley (Shoal Creek). The path of the Indians and the abducted children took them from Sixth Street to Mount Bonnell, where they eluded the pursuit of an Austin posse, and finally to Spicewood Springs near the intersection of what is now MoPac and Spicewood Springs Road.”

The Simpson girl was killed at Spicewood Springs, but the boy, who was later ransomed, provided firsthand details on the trail taken.

De Cordova's 1856 Map of Texas showing road to Hamilton Valley.
In 1853, the Travis County courts designated certain pre-existing roads as “public highways” in order to assign responsibility for their maintenance. One such road ran from Austin to “Hamilton Valley,” which is today Burnet. The road as it left Austin was in part described as “continuing up the foot of the mountains with the Indian trail.”

That now roughly comports with U.S. 183 to the northern suburbs.



The domain of the Comanches

The 1894-1896 U.S. Geological Survey provides another piece of evidence: The area west of Shoal Creek was considered the domain of the Comanches. And it’s likely some roads in existence as early as 1894 reflected trails already in place. This was especially true west of the Balcones Escarpment. The USGS survey confirmed that in Travis County, “nine-tenths of its inhabitants are found … east of the Balcones scarp, the Edwards Plateau country to the west being but sparsely populated.”

So roads out west, way off the original Austin grid, likely had belonged to Indians.

Coleman Springs near old Fort Colorado
Gunnar Brune’s “Major and Historical Springs of Texas” and “Springs of Texas ” identify springs in Travis County known to have been used by Indians. Archaeology and geology provide the locations of sources of flint — or chert — known to have been valued by Indians, so trails leading to the Bee Cave area, as well as to Brushy Creek and the Georgetown region, probably predate European settlement.

Possible "Indian Marker Tree" on MoPac
“In 2014, the Texas Historic Tree Coalition came to Austin to look at what might be — and I stress ‘might be’ — what are called Indian marker trees,” Denney says. “These are trees culturally modified by Indians here in Austin to mark trails or otherwise significant locations.”

Some trees might have been markers at Camp Mabry, which sits at the crossroad of two trails: Frank Brown’s “Trail Going North” and the trail from Mount Bonnell into Austin.

“One such tree located on MoPac again interestingly sits at the ‘Y’ in two trails,” Denney says. “Brown’s Trail and what I call the Hamilton Valley Trail, borrowing the name used by the Travis County courts and old maps before 1858, when Hamilton Valley was renamed Burnet.”

Signal Hill near Leander, Texas
Several hills in Travis and Williamson counties are called “Pilot Knob,” a name given to navigational landmarks. The two in Travis both lie on Brown’s Trail, one south of Austin near the airport, one north off Loop 1 near the old Merrilltown Cemetery. The one south by Austin-Bergstrom International Airport would have been a navigational aid for the Camino Real. Travis County also has two “Signal Hills,”a name often given to rises historically associated with Indian smoke signaling or signal fires.

Some of Denney’s Indian, Spanish and settler trails were were later used to drive cattle to market — including the famous Chisholm Trail, which came through Austin. These lines were later picked up by Texas railroad and highway builders.

Those chapters, however, must wait for other articles here.


[1] While alternate locations have been cited (e.g. McGhee's Austin's Montopolis Neighborhood) historical and even archaeological evidence indicates its location near present-day Martin Luther King Boulevard and Webberville Road.
[2] 1842 has been reported by some authors, but probably happened in 1844 given the Congress of the Republic of Texas passed a resolution to appropriate a ransom that same year.

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