Monday, July 18, 2016

An 1839 Hill Country Journey: the lost San Saba mine

What did this part of the world look like before Joshua Brown and ten others built a shingle making camp here in the late 1840s? That camp was about where today's Water and Spring streets intersect, across the street from Notre Dame Catholic Church. From that small camp Kerrville and Kerr County grew.
John Leonard Riddell

We do have a few clues about what this area looked like in the autumn of 1839 -- because a band of men, seeking a fortune in silver, passed very close by. Among the group was a scientist, John Leonard Riddell, who had a share in the fortune, if it was found. Others contributed funds; Riddell's contribution was his knowledge of geology. He was also a medical doctor, and a botanist.
Years ago my friends Jon and Sandy Wolfmueller, of Wolfmueller's 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.
Riddell kept a journal of the party's travels, and on Friday, October 25, 1839, his entry reads "North or left bank of the Rio Guadalupe, near 40 miles N. of W. from Bexar." I think that would place them somewhere near modern-day Boerne.
The following Monday the group "encamped in a pleasant place after an easy day's march. The musquit [mesquite] tree now disappears and is replaced by live oak, post oak, & c. The country becomes more & more hilly; the eminences are beautifully rounded, and the highest perhaps 400 or even 600 feet above the valleys. Land sparsely timbered, but no uninterrupted large prairies real thickets occur only in the caƱadas or ravines of water courses. In such places the trees and herbaceous plants are like those in Louisiana, viz., hackberry, elm, box elder, oaks, [yaupon holly, ironwood, and Indian-Cherry]." He notes numerous woody vines, and mentions elsewhere the cypress trees.
"I find on the high, dry places many novel, undescribed plants. My diary would be more extensive were it not that I spend most of my leisure time in drawing up descriptions of these plants from fresh specimens."
In 1839, this part of Texas was the frontier, and most of its plants unknown to science. Riddell brought along a press and paper to preserve the plant specimens which he collected on this 1839 trip; what happened to that collection is unknown.
"As we neared Sabinas Creek, a tributary of the Rio Guadalupe, the traveling became unpleasant for horses on accord of flint, hornstone, buhrstone, and rough limestone which wholly occupied the surface of the ground. The ravine of the Sabinas is exceedingly bad to cross on account of its steepness, as well as the thicket and rocks. A careless Irish servant in this ravine accidentally shot a soldier through the breast."
This was one of two accidental shootings on the journey; the other occurred when a young soldier accidentally discharged his rifle, injuring himself. Both men died from their wounds.
"In consequence of that accident," Riddell wrote, "we encamped early on a grassy, stony, and partially oak clad hill just on the north bank of the Sabinas."
Sabinas Creek is near where FM Road 474 crosses the Guadalupe River in Kendall County. If this creek is the same as the one Riddell mentions, it's not too far from Kerrville.
Their next camp was near present-day Sisterdale. "The land here is fine. Large cypresses grow along the water, but they looked odd to me because the Spanish moss was not to be seen pendant from their branches [as it was near his home in Louisiana]."
"Bees are wonderfully abundant in this country. The men immediately find, within 40 rods of camp, more bee-trees than they can cut down and rob. So we have honey pretty plenty.
"The Guadalupe is here a swift running, clear green water, say 15 yards or 20 across, and not belly deep to a horse. But there are marks of a recent rise some 15 or 20 feet higher than at present. Here about our present camp the land is rich, the soil black and deep, and the surface finely disposed with about the right proportion of woodland and prairie, and I have no doubt the region will prove eminently healthy when it shall become settled."
In that, of course, Riddell was correct.
Did they ever find the lost San Saba silver mine? No one knows. The diary ends abruptly when the men came near the site. What was on those missing pages is a mystery to this day.
Until next week, all the best.

Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who has no idea where the lost San Saba mine can be found. It's still out there, somewhere.  This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times July 16, 2016.

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