Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A solitary rider

The first settler to view the land where Kerrville would eventually be built was a solitary shingle maker on horseback, who first scouted the area in the mid-1840s.
I have tried to imagine that ride and the rider.
Joshua D. Brown, a veteran of the Battle of San Jacinto, explored the upper reaches of the Guadalupe River and decided shingle making could be profitable there. Born in Kentucky in 1816, he arrived in Texas at the age of 14, coming to DeWitt's colony at Gonzales, where James Kerr was an official. Brown was 20 when he fought at San Jacinto.
In 1844, he moved up the Guadalupe River to a site called Curry's Creek, in what is now Kendall County. Shingle making was going strong at Curry's Creek, and soon many of the nearby cypress trees were felled. Following a rumor that giant cypress trees were farther upriver, Brown explored the area now known as Kerrville in 1846. He was 30.
What did he see here?
From my collection of historic Kerr County photographs, I know our river valley has changed in the past 100 years. The earliest photos in my collection show a place with far fewer trees than we have today; I don't see a lot of juniper trees in the photos, and the giant trees we have in our yards and along our older streets were not yet planted. There still were trees along the river (Brown and his shingle makers didn't cut them all), but the area that would soon hold the grid of streets of which we're familiar is oddly barren of trees.
Photos of our area taken earlier than 1900 are scarce because cameras were scarce. So there's no way to see what Joshua Brown saw when he first visited on horseback. It was a valley absent of the landmarks with which we're so familiar. There were no limestone buildings, no traffic lights, no courthouse, no stores, no churches, no bridges. It was a face lacking the creases of expression. The web of tales we attach to this place had yet to be written. The lives had yet to be lived.
It would be tempting to take a romantic view of this place as you imagine what Joshua Brown saw when he came here. Its pristine beauty, from our present-day point of view, must have been breathtaking.
But to Brown all of the land he'd traveled was pristine. It was all untouched, unspoiled.
Traveling in 1846 in any direction from Curry's Creek, it would have been harder to find developed, populated land than to find what today we might consider a Hill Country Garden of Eden. It was all Eden, in every direction.
Why then did Joshua Brown pick this place? Partly for the cypress trees. Brown's solitary expedition was economically motivated. The availability of water might have been another factor. The nearness of German settlements might have played a role. The apparent absence of Native American activity also might have influenced the choice.
History records Brown's response to the area. He was excited by what he found.
He returned to Goliad and recruited a band of 10 men to join him in establishing a shingle-making camp here.
They weren't prepared for life here. In their excitement, they neglected to prepare for one of the constant factors of the Hill Country frontier. In the history I've read, the quote says "the Indians proved troublesome," and Brown and his companions were forced to leave the valley within a few months.
But the idea of the place stuck with Brown, and he returned two years later in 1848. This time he was better prepared and chose as the site of his camp a bluff which was more easily defended, where the 800 block of Water Street is today. And this time, the community took hold.
Only eight years after this shaky beginning, Kerr County was created. It was named for a friend of Joshua Brown, James Kerr, a leader in the early affairs of Texas.  Joshua Brown offered a townsite to the very first Kerr County commissioners court, a town to be named "Kerrsville."
We may not be the first tribe to live here, beside the Guadalupe River, but since Joshua Brown first passed this way on horseback, this place, nestled in the curving arm of a green river, has been a great place to call home.

Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who was born just a few blocks from the site of Joshua Brown's second shingle camp.

This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times January 31, 2015.

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