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The Big Thicket Guidebook
Exploring the Backroads and History of Southeast Texas
By Lorraine G. Bonney, Maxine Johnston, Pete A. Y. Gunter
University of North Texas Press Copyright © 2011 Big Thicket Association and the University of North Texas Press
All rights reserved.
History! The story of people in action! And of byways: old buffalo trails that became Indian traces then Spanish paths which broadened into every sort of road from timber track to superhighway. Come explore the past, the heart, and the fringes of Big Thicket, search for signs of those who dared to challenge it.
Today the rich heritage and scenic beauty of Big Thicket are all but gone due to space age technology. And so this cannot be a guidebook in today's sense, but a search for the past. It's like a treasure hunt—the clues are there and if we poke around long enough, down deadend roads, through weed jungles or pine tree farms, chasing the ghosts we know were once there, we do find treasures—delightful niches of fine scenery, lost markers of a bygone time, echoes of warm, lively human beings who were deeply involved in survival and fighting for their personal beliefs.
When white man stumbled across the southeast corner of what is now called Texas he was in the land of the Attacapan Indians—an undefined lush semitropical wilderness—a mix of primeval forests, upland pinelands, prairies, jungles, and thickets, its boundaries vague. It was the meathouse of the tribes. Then the Spaniards came with their string of missions and presidios to win the friendship of the Indians and to counter the French and later the American adventurers. The waves of pioneers, lured by free land, fell upon the treeless prairie patches and water-edged lands. Lawbreakers, runaway slaves, jayhawkers, those with an aversion to people, sought out the Big Thicket. Hunters found it a dream come true.
The two great episodes that altered the Big Thicket forever were the rise of the timber barons with their railroads, and oil!
But let the book tell the stories. Come along with us now and hear the stories of the country known today as Big Thicket—humorous, ambitious, pathetic, lovable, yes, and definitely savage.
Let's chase ghosts!CHAPTER 2
MEET THE BIG THICKET
People laughed when they first heard of the need for a Big Thicket National Park. A big WHAT! Being Texas, of course it would be big, but a big Thicket? Who needed a Thicket, big or little!
But one to two hundred years ago that piece of ill-defined real estate with the odd name had a reputation across the south. It was as legendary as the Llano Estacado or the Mustang Desert. The Big Thicket lurked at the southern end of the East Texas piney woods which in turn were the western extension of the southern diversified forest that extended eastward to the Atlantic Ocean.
But the Big Thicket definitely was different from the piney woods and from the southern forests. It was more intense—with more rainfall, warmer temperatures, younger soils. Ill defined, poorly bounded, and questionably named, that richly vegetated region was an area of contrast and surprise, where enormous trees towered over alligator swamps and blackwater sloughs, where sinuous, sandy-bottomed rivers with giant floodplains and bayous and creeks twisted and flooded. It had untamed beauty and green solitude where panthers screamed and the strange, creaky windmill call of the legendary ivory-billed woodpecker echoed freely through the forest. It had remote and mysterious regions and dark baygalls where bears and fierce wild hogs hid out in tight thickets—and it had fabulous hunting.
It had upland forests reminiscent of Appalachia; the cacti and yucca sandbarrens of the southwestern deserts; swamps as eerie and tangled as those back east; prairies where horse-belly high grasses reached to big sky; hardwood flats where palmettos topped a horse's back; savannahs that harbored some of the earth's most primitive plants side-by-side with some of the earth's newest. It was a phenomenon, a legend, a hiding place.
Centuries later it would be called a biological crossroads of North America.
The distinctive, albeit funny name Big Thicket, where did it come from? It's hard to pin down; undoubtedly those early, down to earth settlers called it what it was. The Tonkawas and the Karankawas along the Gulf Coast called the Thicket "Big Woods," say some sources. If you look through history's pages, the Big Thicket name is scarce. The first written record found to date was in a passage in Don E. E. Braman's 1857 book Information About Texas, which contained short summaries of Texas counties existing at the time:
"Polk County ... here is the 'Big Thicket,' celebrated ... for its extraordinarily fertile soil. The rich prairies of this county afford free commons to any number of herdsmen." Now for sure "rich prairies" didn't inspire a term like "big thicket" despite the literature. That catchy phrase had to be conjured up by some kind of a thickety barrier. A thicket is a thicket, not a "rich prairie." Let's probe further.
Again, in J. DeCordova's 1858 account, "What is extensively known as Big Thicket lies on the eastern border of the [Montgomery] county, between the forks of the San Jacinto ... land is high, sandy and very productive, covered with a dense growth of large timber, post-oak, white oak, also black walnut, hickory, ash, and in some places magnolia and wild peach [Carolina cherry laurel]." A thicket can be a "dense growth," so we're getting closer.
DeCordova goes on to say, "In the southwest corner of this [Jasper] county, there is a region known as the thickety country, which is regarded as valuable land."—And closer!
These quotations establish several things: that a Big Thicket did exist, that the name did not fit the country described; that opinions differed even then as to where it was located; that there was a basis for extending it west of the Trinity; and that there definitely was a thickety country somewhere.
In 1835 Gideon Lincecum, in his Travels in Texas, 1835 (p. 305), described the perfect thicket in the right location but didn't put a name to it. He was in Indian country—northeast Hardin, southeast Polk and northeast Liberty counties—following Indian trails: "... we came to the big Sandy this is a bold running clear creek, cane fine, and the land pretty good 10th. This day passed through the thickest woods I ever saw. I[t] perhaps surpasses any Country in the world for brush there is 8 or 10 kinds of ever green undergrowth ... and so thick that you could not see a man 20 yards for miles."
And Houston reporter John Caplen didn't put a name to his 1877 route from Cleveland to Saratoga along today's FM 787: "A dim trail through the thicket ... in many places we have to get down on our hands and knees to crawl through the thick, close-knitted growth of baygall bushes and canebrakes." What more could you ask for?
Its reputation as a thicket probably was started by the Spanish padres who, in visiting the missions in the Nacogdoches country in the 1700s, recorded the fact that between the missions and the sea there existed a forest so wild, thick, and impenetrable that it was impossible to traverse some of it by foot; that even the Indians traversed it only by paddling their canoes through its streams—in other words, a big thicket!
One of the first penetrations on record by white men into today's Big Thicket area occurred in 1745 when Captain Joaquin Orobio y Basterra went into the Trinity region. He was checking for illegal French traders. From the Houston area he headed northeast past Cleveland, crossed the Trinity near Livingston and swung east through Woodville to the Neches where he found Indians and abundant signs of French influence—firearms, clothing, and trinkets. The Indians told him that the French were active on the coast but in order to reach the coast he had to go to Nacogdoches to pick up the Bidai Trail south, a path cut by these Indians in going to and from their country. At Nacogdoches he hired an Indian guide to take him over the Bidai Trail (toward Livingston), which took him to five Orcoquisac and Bidai villages located on the forks of the San Jacinto and the Trinity, all of which were dealing freely with the French.
On his second inspection trip to the Trinity region in 1748, once in the Liberty area the captain explored eastward with guides. He followed the trail from the Trinity to the Sabine for two leagues until "thick groves of pine trees, heavy underbrush and swampy land unfit for settlement" stopped him. His guides told him it was like that until well beyond the Sabine. He turned back.
Starting in early 1766 the Marques de Rubi and his engineer DeFora left Mexico City on a three-year inspection trip to assess the presidios in New Spain. On the return trip, they arrived in Nacogdoches and headed directly south for the presidio Orcoquisac (Anahuac area), passing near today's Lufkin and Corrigan. On the route to Livingston they passed thick woods, fallen timber, "over dismal swampy marshes" as they headed south, following muddy and soggy paths. They stayed east of the Trinity passing the present Ace and Moss Hill, and arrived at Orcoquisac. Again, in Our Catholic Heritage, (IV, 252) Rubi recommended giving up East Texas, fearlessly, frankly, and emphatically declaring that in the entire area between Los Adaes, La Bahia, and San Antonio, the "only part where Spanish dominion was in fact exercised was along two narrow paths called roads, and even there it was shared with the natives, from whose thieving activities Spaniards were not entirely free. In this vast area there was not a settlement or semblance of one, nor hope of any being established," until one reached Nacogdoches' lonely mission. To the south 120 leagues, on the banks of the Trinity stood Orcoquisac, an "uninviting and inaccessible location ..."
In 1772, because of Rubi's report, according to Our Catholic Heritage in Texas, "the Spanish government decided [for the second time] to give back to nature and the Indians, temporarily at least, all that portion of Texas lying northeast of San Antonio ... some parts of which had been occupied, continuously even if weakly, for more than half a century." Rubi suggested leaving the the country to others.
The Big Thicket was the last great wooded section in East Texas to yield to roads until the latter part of the nineteenth century. As the roads evolved from buffalo trails into Indian traces that the Spaniards linked up and made more passable for their bulky packtrains, they served the Indians, French, and Spaniards alike in the 1700s. Eventually the northern road became the well marked, well traveled El Camino Real—the San Antonio– Nacogdoches road (TX 21). It passed north of the Big Thicket barrier. The Atascosita–Opelousas Trail (US 90), laid out mostly by the Spanish by 1755 after Orobio y Basterra explored it, skirted the Thicket wilderness to the south. The Bidai Indians had their network of trails, which the Coushattas took over in the early 1800s to connect their villages between the Sabine and the Trinity (near Livingston). Their main Coushatta Trace was a southward cutaway from the San Antonio Road. The network evolved into the Beef and the Contraband trails, and other main trails like that shown on old Spanish provincial maps that crossed Thicket country from Liberty to Alexandria, Louisiana. All were used by Indians, explorers, smugglers, adventurers, traders, and early migrants.
And where was the Big Thicket? Always rather vague, there wasn't an easy answer. Some authors considered that north to south it reached from the Old San Antonio Road to the Gulf coastal plain and, east to west, from the Sabine to the Brazos River. The 1952 edition of the Handbook of Texas agrees. Others had the Big Thicket stretching from the Sabine River west only to the Trinity. By 1900, local tradition of oldtimers who lived in Hardin County had their version pinpointed as the 40-mile-long and 20-mile-wide, gray clay and sandy flatland of that part of the Pine Island Bayou drainage system that stretched from southern Polk and Tyler counties to Sour Lake where the dense woods thinned out into prairies and rice fields. That was the locale for innumerable folklore tales, most of them based on fact. John Henry Kirby could also pinpoint it but even less generously. It was only in Hardin County.
Critics of the Save-the-Big Thicket movement said the area was non-existent, "a gullible and romantic state of mind," because it took so long to define it.
Several other geography and biology experts—geology professor F. W. Simmonds and industrial geographer E. H. Johnson, for two, both at the University of Texas—mentioned it casually in their various studies as being in Hardin County, or a western extension of the southern Louisiana swamps, but their references, as James Cozine says in "Defining the Big Thicket" (East Texas Historical Journal, 1993, #2), were only "tangential remarks within their larger works."
The major barrier to travelers presented by the Big Thicket were the many stream crossings with their thickety banks and unfordable bottoms, often in flood stage, where deep soils made it hard for wagon travel. Those who entered this Big Thicket wilderness in the early centuries made it on foot or horseback.
Historically, the Big Thicket was greatly affected by the Neutral Ground. After the Louisiana Purchase, the United States and Spain were unable to agree on a boundary between Louisiana and Texas. In 1806 they agreed that the disputed area between the Arroyo Hondo on the east in Louisiana and the Sabine on the west would remain neutral, a no-man's-land, with no settlers allowed. It quickly became a refuge for outlaws, horse thieves, gamblers, and runaway slaves, a population so lawless that military expeditions had to be mounted against them from 1810 to 1812. When the U.S. acquired ownership in 1821 the area was cleared of some of the more notorious, but those driven out headed for the Big Thicket; their bad reputation crossed the Sabine with them.
The Louisiana Purchase kicked off the great race west and settlers pushed for the future Texas, attracted by cheap land. So many came in 1836, the year of Texas independence, that four Big Thicket counties were formed then out of the former Atascosito District: Jasper, Liberty, Sabine, and San Augustine.
The first immigrants, mostly from Appalachia, were white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who first settled the margins of the Thicket and many of its prairies in the 1830s. As for the Indians, the waterways became their main means of transportation, allowing them to spread inwards and live off the Thicket. These politically and socially conservative Protestant fundamentalists built the first towns, many along navigable rivers that could be used for trade and travel. When the railroads arrived, they moved over to the rails. When the sawmills began whining and the oilfields started gushing, towns were carved out of the virgin forest; many are now ghosts, some memorialized along highways, most buried in regrowth forests.
The Thicket over the years was logged and re-logged. Early efforts were closely related to the development of main line railroads through the area. Pine forests were the first to be cut. Hundreds of miles of tram lines were extended from branch lines into the virgin forest. Only the best pines—preferably longleaf—were taken. A chaos of dead treetops, churned up soil, matted dead brush, and immense holes in the green canopy were left. By 1935, the original Big Thicket pine forest had been cut.
When the Lucas oil gusher blew in and ruined the old mineral springs at Spindletop, south of Beaumont, in 1901, it generated a stampede into the Beaumont area and sent "creekologists" scurrying throughout the region searching for other mineral wells and bubbly surfaces. Then oil was discovered at the mineral spas of Sour Lake in 1903 and in quick time derricks pushed out the tall pines of a virgin forest, and the oil gang rushed to Sour Lake.
At Batson's Prairie it was bubbly surfaces that brought ten thousand people within a few weeks of the news to crowd out the original five families quietly living in the heart of the Thicket. Even deeper in the Big Thicket where an enterprising New Yorker had turned some mineral springs into a health resort called Saratoga, they too were discovered and another boom town was born.
Excerpted from The Big Thicket Guidebook by Lorraine G. Bonney, Maxine Johnston, Pete A. Y. Gunter. Copyright © 2011 Big Thicket Association and the University of North Texas Press. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
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