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Monday, July 11, 2016

A time machine made of paper and ink

Have you ever wished for a time machine?
As someone interested in local history, I have often wished I could go back in time and get answers to several persistent questions of our community's past.
For example, what did Kerrville look like before Joshua Brown and his fellow shingle makers arrived in the mid-1840s?
There is no evidence of permanent settlement here before Brown arrived here from Gonzales, though there are several archeological sites which suggest campsites used intermittently over hundreds (if not thousands) of years. That is, there were sites where Native Americans camped as they passed through the area, sites which were used repeatedly over many generations. But those campsites were not permanent settlements.
Fortunately, we have a time machine, of sorts.
Years ago my friends Jon and Sandy Wolfmueller, of Wolfmueller Books, gave me a slim book called "A Long Ride in Texas: the Explorations of John Leonard Riddell." Edited by James O. Breeden, the book was published by the Texas A&M University Press in 1994.
John Leonard Riddell was a botanist, geologist, and medical doctor who recorded a journey he took in 1839 from Houston to our neck of the woods. That diary is our time machine.
He was a fairly good observer, noting many of the plants he saw along the way, describing the geology of the lands along his journey, and keeping a log of the days he and the rest of the explorers spent as they traveled deeper into the wilderness of central Texas. It was a dangerous journey: Comanche bands attacked frequently, and the roads were infested with murderous bandits of many nationalities. Disease, too, followed the travelers; of the entire party, only Riddell had a tent, and the journey was in the Autumn. Two in the party died from gunshot wounds, both instances being preventable accidents. And there were divisions in the group: civilians and soldiers; various races; various cultures. It was not a unified team.
Science was not what compelled Riddell to travel into our area: He and the others were looking for silver, specifically the lost San Saba mine. This is the same mine associated with Jim Bowie and others -- a rich mine of silver, still talked about today, but never found.
Like Bilbo Baggins in "The Hobbit," Riddell had a share in the treasure. He was not required to make a financial investment in the company -- Riddell's contribution was his knowledge of geology. (Bilbo Baggins' contribution was to burgle treasure from a vengeful dragon named Smaug.) All Riddell had to do was apply his knowledge to find the mine.
Riddell's journey from Houston took him through San Felipe, Columbus, Gonzales, Seguin, and San Antonio. There was little left of most of these villages in 1839 -- they'd been destroyed by Texans after the fall of the Alamo in 1836 to deny supplies, shelter, or fodder to the advancing army of Santa Anna.
Of Gonzales, Riddell wrote: "Gonzales, which I come near forgetting, is a small place of six or eight houses, perhaps ten or twelve. It is smaller even than Columbus. The site is fine and the lands about fertile and beautiful. This night [September 19, 1839] we stayed with Mr. King, whose house is eight miles from Gonzales, in a direction rather northwest towards Seguin. His house is a kind of fort, very pleasantly situated."
I mention his impression of Gonzales because that community is where many of our earliest settlers lived before coming to what would become Kerr County -- including Joshua Brown, the founder of Kerrville. In 1839, Joshua Brown likely lived in one of those ten or twelve houses.
Next week I'll tell you what Riddell saw when he visited our area.
Until then, all the best.

Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who would enjoy time travel, provided he could make his way back to the present day.  This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times July 9, 2016.

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