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Sutherland Springs, Texas: Saratoga on the Cibolo

Sutherland Springs, Texas: Saratoga on the Cibolo

by Richard B. McCaslin

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In Sutherland Springs, Texas, Richard B. McCaslin explores the rise and fall of this rural community near San Antonio primarily through the lens of its aspirations to become a resort spa town, because of its mineral water springs, around the turn of the twentieth century. Texas real estate developers, initially more interested in oil, brought Sutherland


In Sutherland Springs, Texas, Richard B. McCaslin explores the rise and fall of this rural community near San Antonio primarily through the lens of its aspirations to become a resort spa town, because of its mineral water springs, around the turn of the twentieth century. Texas real estate developers, initially more interested in oil, brought Sutherland Springs to its peak as a resort in the early twentieth century, but failed to transform the farming settlement into a resort town. The decline in water tables during the late twentieth century reduced the mineral water flows, and the town faded. Sutherland Springs’s history thus provides great insights into the importance of water in shaping settlement.
Beyond the story of resort spa aspirations lies a history of the community and its people itself.
McCaslin provides a complete history of Sutherland Springs from early settlement through Civil War and into the twentieth century, its agricultural and oil-drilling exploits alongside its mineral water appeal, as well as a complete community history of the various settlers and owners of the springs/hotel.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“This is a well written and clear description of the struggle of a single town in Texas history trying to grow and thrive in very difficult circumstances, such as poor transportation and insignificant location.”—Anne Sutherland, author of We Cousins: The Robertsons, the Sutherlands, and the Making of Texas
Sutherland Springs, Texas, will be recognized for its thorough research and scholarship. It may well end up being kind of an anchor in a handful of academic studies of place in Texas. I was gripped by the devastating reality of the Civil War and the account of the history of the Mustang Grays; this chapter is strong because it anchors in broader, national scholarship a small, Texas locale.”—M.J. Morgan, author of Border Sanctuary and Land of Big Rivers

Product Details

University of North Texas Press
Publication date:
Texas Local Series , #2
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

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Sutherland Springs, Texas

Saratoga on the Cibolo

By Richard B. McCaslin

University of North Texas Press

Copyright © 2017 Richard B. McCaslin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57441-685-5


Setting a Pattern

Like much of modern Texas, the springs along Cibolo Creek southwest of San Antonio did not attract permanent settlers until after the Texans won their independence from Mexico. The pattern for future development became clear with the arrival of Joseph H. Polley and John Sutherland Jr. in the late 1840s. Polley, a Yankee farmer who raised livestock and cotton as one of Stephen F. Austin's original colonists, regarded the springs and the rich soil around them as great resources for market agriculture. Sutherland, a Virginia-born doctor who had some success with homeopathic methods, saw the springs as a great place to practice medicine and develop a spa devoted to the healing powers of the mineral waters. Both men had experience in buying and selling land for profit, and they understood that developing a community would enhance their enterprises. When Sutherland platted a town on his land west of the Cibolo, Polley supported its growth from his homestead on the eastern bank. These men, together with a growing number of settlers in the area, put Sutherland Springs on the map by 1860 as the seat of the newly created county of Wilson. More than justa farming settlement, their community also served as both a political center and a resort that focused on the Cibolo and its springs.

Cibolo Creek begins in the Texas Hill Country approximately forty miles northwest of San Antonio, near the town of Boerne, and flows southeast almost one hundred miles until it runs into the San Antonio River, thus forming the eastern boundary of that stream's broad watershed. Fed within its upper drainage basin by numerous springs and streams that bubble up through the porous limestone of the Edwards Plateau, the Cibolo runs off the plateau through several small canyons, which brings it much closer to the groundwater that lies underneath the grassy prairies and woodlands east of San Antonio. The site that later became Sutherland Springs lies upon the eastern edge of an underground swath of water-bearing sand that stretches from the Texas border with Louisiana to the Mexican boundary. These are the Carrizo sands of the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer, which end abruptly near a subterranean fault just east of Sutherland Springs. This subsurface interruption, coupled with the erosive effect of the Cibolo flowing across the Carrizo sands, creates the perfect situation for groundwater to be pushed to the surface, and as the water percolates upward, it brings with it various minerals such as alum, iron, manganese, and several varieties of sulfur. Other sites around San Antonio benefitted from similar circumstances, and some were developed as well when mineral springs were popular in Texas and elsewhere in the United States, but Sutherland Springs as a resort location developed early and lasted longer than most of its competitors.

Polley and Sutherland were certainly not the first settlers at the springs on Cibolo Creek. One of the richest sources of pre-Columbian artifacts in Texas lies near modern-day Sutherland Springs, and both the Coahuiltecans and Tonka was lived along the Cibolo, which they called Xoloton and Bata Coniquiyoqui respectively, during historic times. But the stream first appeared in historical records when Spanish authorities rode into Texas in response to the French intrusion during the late seventeenth century. Alonso de León, governor of Coahuila, probably camped on the Cibolo, which he called the Arroyo del Leon after finding a dead mountain lion nearby, in 1689 during his fourth expedition to find French intruders. Father Damien Massanet traveled with Alonso de León and returned to the area during 1691 with Domingo Terán de los Ríos. Massanet referred to the Cibolo as Santa Crecencia, while Terán called it the San Ygnacio de Loyola. Domingo Ramón, who led another entrada to build missions in East Texas, named the creek San Xavier in 1716. Five years later, the Marqués de San Miguel de Aguayo, who greatly expanded the number of missions and presidios in Texas to certify Spain's claim to the province, gave the waterway its enduring title of Rio Cibolo. He probably named it for the bison that still grazed along its banks at that time, although there is an intriguing similarity to Cibola, the name of a city of gold that appears among the Spanish mythology well-known to these explorers.

The Spanish did not establish permanent settlements on the Cibolo, but several missions located in the future city of San Antonio, most notably Concepción, were granted lands near the springs to pasture livestock, which were tended by herders who built adobe shelters. Comanches and Lipan Apaches raided into the region where the springs flowed from the banks of the Cibolo during the first decades of the eighteenth century, when the missions were being founded at San Antonio. Apache attacks in the 1730s prompted the construction of more substantial outposts to the south and east, such as Rancho de las Cabras near modern Floresville and El Fuerte de Santa Cruz del Cibolo near present-day Cestohowa, but no further development occurred at the springs. Individuals later established ranches between the Cibolo and the San Antonio River, but the most successful clustered near the latter, and the number of these estates dwindled as the eighteenth century drew to a close. The region lay outside of the empresario grants given by Mexico after it gained its independence, and by the mid-1830s the few Hispanic families who had settled in the area abandoned their homes and moved elsewhere. C. B. Stevenson, who moved to Sutherland Springs in 1858, remembered the San Antonio River valley, to the south of the Cibolo, as being like Mexico in its settlement, while Anglos had settled along the Cibolo and remained dominant until long after the Civil War. Joseph B. Polley, who came with his father in 1847, remembered that a small ruin, which appeared to have been a two-room building of red sandstone, stood near the springs, but by the time Stevenson arrived, this relic of Spanish settlement had collapsed and rocks from it were used to build chimneys in the area.

The springs on the Cibolo attracted some official attention during the period that Texas was a Mexican province. Juan N. Almonte in his 1834 report of his inspection tour noted that they lay eight or nine leagues from San Antonio "on the west bank of the Arroyo del Cibolo." He described them as "thermal springs held in great regard for rheumatism and other ailments of this nature." What he did not record, perhaps because he did not know, was that the site of some of the springs had been claimed. José Alejandro Treviño, a former Spanish officer who also owned property just downstream on the eastern side of the Cibolo, confirmed his title to the tract that included the future site of Sutherland Springs in December 1833. Just a few years later there were skirmishes nearby during the Texas Revolution. The first clash occurred when Stephen F. Austin's scouts encountered Mexican cavalry on the Cibolo in late 1835. A brief fight ensued before the Mexicans retreated and Austin continued his march to San Antonio. Juan N. Seguín camped with a small force on the Cibolo downstream from Treviño's grant, greeting men of James W. Fannin's command coming from Goliad in February 1836 and fighting Tonkawas in March and April. Volunteers from Gonzales crossed the Cibolo near Treviño's springs as they marched to join the Alamo garrison. Allegedly Santa Anna's army crossed the Cibolo on its march to defeat at San Jacinto; in 1891 a farmer near Sutherland Springs unearthed an "iron pot" filled with "doubloons of gold" worth $17,000, which some believed had been left by Mexican troops in 1836.

Across the Cibolo from Treviño's claim were other springs, which began to draw more attention after the Texas Revolution. George Bonnell in his Topographical Description of Texas, published in 1840, wrote that these "white sulphur springs" on the Cibolo were "celebrated" and "the most beautiful springs in the world." He saw a bowl carved in the rock on the east side of the Cibolo, about twenty feet in diameter and filled with water from a spring that emerged in its bottom, with the excess water flowing away in a "bold stream." William Kennedy mimicked Bonnell in his own book on Texas, printed in 1841, by writing that "near the Cibolo, just below the crossing of the Gonzales road, are the white Sulphur Springs of Bexar, celebrated for their medicinal qualities. The water boils up from the bottom of a large basin in the solid rock, and flows off with a bold current." At about this same time, Ludovic Colquhoun did more than just write about these springs — he bought them. Manuel Antonio Santiago Tarín, a veteran of the Álamo de Parras Company whose father resigned his Spanish commission to join the Gutiérrez-Magee Expedition in 1813, served under Seguín at San Jacinto and received a land grant for his service. He sold it to Colquhoun in January 1838, and it was surveyed across the Cibolo from Treviño's grant, on the east bank alongside Treviño's other claim.

The Texan victory at San Jacinto did not end the fighting with Mexico along the Cibolo. Seguín returned to the stream in 1842, but this time as a soldier in the service of Mexico against the Texans. He commanded a detachment that rode east from San Antonio as part of Mexican general Adrian Woll's raiding force in September 1842. When some of Seguín's troopers found three Anglos and a Mexican at the springs on the Cibolo, a sharp skirmish ensued that ended with the Anglos killed and the Mexican joining Seguín. The most prominent of the three dead men was Launcelot Smither, who escaped the Alamo as a courier and later served as treasurer and mayor pro tem of San Antonio, ironically when Seguín left the city while serving as mayor. Smither and the others allegedly were ill and went to the springs to seek some relief, as an increasing number of people apparently did.

Among the prisoners taken by Woll and sent to Perote Prison in Mexico was Colquhoun, who resumed his speculation in Texas property after his release. He apparently never settled on the grant he bought from Tarín; instead, he sold it to Gideon Lee Jr. in September 1848. Lee was born in Putnam County, New York, in 1824. His father was a prominent politician who served as a mayor and alderman for New York City, a legislator, and a United States Congressman. The younger Lee came to Texas in 1846 to fight against Mexico. He served as a lieutenant in Henry W. Baylor's company of Maj. Michael Chevallie's Battalion, then after his discharge bought land on the road from San Antonio to Indianola, including the property that contained the springs on the eastern bank of the Cibolo. Lee reportedly planned to construct a resort and contracted with developer Joseph F. Johnson of nearby Seguin to build cabins by the pools to board patients when a cholera epidemic tormented San Antonio in the spring of 1849. Patronage was good, especially when well-known families from the city such as the Mavericks came to the springs seeking relief. Lee himself actually settled on Salado Creek to the west, where he raised cattle and worked unsuccessfully to have the San Antonio and Mexican Gulf Railroad cross his Cibolo property. He moved to New York City as the Civil War approached, but long after that conflict he returned to San Antonio and died there in 1894, still the absentee owner of the springs on the east bank of the Cibolo.

Lee's purchase precluded anyone else from developing the springs east of the Cibolo, but his absence meant that an enterprising person could use the unfenced land for his own purposes. In 1847 Joseph H. Polley bought the adjacent grant, which had originally been given to Felipe Luar, from his son-in-law John James, a San Antonio land developer who had recently married Polley's daughter, Emeline. Polley had been born in 1795 at Whitehall in upstate New York. His father, Jonathan Polley, was a Connecticut native who fought in the American Revolution and later prospered as a dairy farmer. Young Joseph at age fifteen became a teamster in Capt. Samuel Brown's company of New York militia during the War of 1812. Discharged, he traveled west with, according to family lore, fifty cents and a horse. Somehow he found Moses Austin. Several sources, most notably Polley himself, assert that Polley accompanied the Missouri land speculator on his 1820 journey to San Antonio. Austin died before he could reap the benefits of his empresario grant, but his son Stephen F. Austin, only one year younger than Polley, took charge of the project and sought the approval of the newly independent Mexican government. Austin noted that as he traveled to San Antonio, Polley joined him. After confirming his grant, Austin returned to Louisiana to recruit. Polley stayed with Josiah H. Bell, who had settled on the Brazos River and for whom Polley had previously worked. They thus became some of Austin's first colonists.

Polley did well in Austin's Colony. He got a league in Brazoria County as a partner of Samuel Chance, then claimed a league of his own in nearby Fort Bend County. He remained on his individual headright long enough to settle the title, then relocated to Columbia and later San Felipe, the capital of Austin's Colony. In 1826 he married Mary A. Bailey, seventeen-year-old daughter of fiery James B. Bailey, for the first time; they repeated their wedding vows before Father Michael Muldoon in 1831 and again before a Presbyterian minister at Mary's insistence. The newlyweds lived for a few years in San Felipe and then returned to Brazoria County, settling on land inherited from Bailey, who died in December 1832 during a cholera epidemic that struck Austin's Colony. By the time Mary lost her father, she had three children: Mary Augusta, James Bailey, and Emeline Elizabeth. James died in 1834, at the age of four, but Mary had six more children before she and her husband settled on the Cibolo in 1847: Susan Rebecca, Sarah Adell, Catherine Sayre, Joseph Benjamin, Harriet Roxanna, and Abner Hubbard. Two more sons were born at the Polley home on the Cibolo: Jonathan James and Walter Webster.

Polley thus gained land and a large family in Texas, and he worked hard to support them. During the early years he made good money by laboring or hauling goods for others, including Austin, but he also raised crops and livestock. The latter must have included dairy cattle; when Mary opened their home as a boarding house in San Felipe, welcoming dinner customers as well as lodgers, the Polleys were noted for serving butter and cheese. Polley even had a neighbor buy a set of molds and Mary made tallow candles for sale. Most important, he invested his profits in more land, paying taxes on nearly ten thousand acres scattered across southwestern Texas by 1837. Most of this was agricultural land, but he did invest in the development of towns such as Bolivar, which failed, and Brazoria, which later served as the seat of Brazoria County. He would resell land if an opportunity arose to increase his proceeds, but much of it supported his farming operations. He began raising cotton, which Austin encouraged, about 1835, and his increasing purchases of slave clothing, along with larger ploughs and sturdy steel hoes, indicate a serious investment in slaves and the potential profit of a cash crop. He contracted with Galveston cotton factor Robert Mills and sold four bales in December 1843 for almost six hundred dollars. Prices fluctuated wildly, however, and when two bales in 1844 brought less than seventy dollars, Polley abandoned the fleecy staple.

Polley's enduring agricultural interest, which brought him to settle on the Cibolo in 1847, was beef cattle. He received cattle from estates that he probated as an executor and bought more when he could do so at a good price. He paid for most of his purchases of personal goods with beef and hides. His contributions to the revolutionary army of Texas were beef and draft oxen, which he sold at a fraction of their value to his embattled neighbors during the summer of 1836. The following year, when he paid taxes on land scattered in seven counties, he registered his first brand, a linked JHP, in Brazoria County. Cattle made Polley's fortune. The 1840 census reported that he had three slaves (whom he had purchased at New Orleans in 1836), twelve horses, and a silver watch. When he moved west seven years later, he was reputedly one of the richest men in Texas, paying taxes on nine slaves, twenty horses, and six hundred cattle. His livestock holdings were probably more extensive than he admitted to the tax man, because he told the census taker that he was worth $20,000 in 1850.


Excerpted from Sutherland Springs, Texas by Richard B. McCaslin. Copyright © 2017 Richard B. McCaslin. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

RICHARD B. McCASLIN, TSHA Endowed Professor of Texas History at the University of North Texas, is the author of Tainted Breeze: The Great Hanging at Gainesville, Texas, October 1862; Lee in the Shadow of Washington; and Fighting Stock: John S. “Rip” Ford in Texas.

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