Monday, September 5, 2016

How early settlers found their way to Kerr County

Finding your way into Kerr County is a lot easier today than it was when our community was being formed. Today you can plug an address into a system using the Global Positioning System, and a computerized voice will guide you turn by turn until you reach your destination. While such a navigation system is a marvel, consider how the earliest settlers here would have reacted to such an invention, especially when the turn by turn directions would have included landmarks like 'a big split rock,' or the 'ruts of previous wagon wheels.'
The first settler in our area was Joshua D. Brown. He arrived here from Gonzales with a group of 10 men to harvest cypress trees from which to make shingles. Their first foray here was around 1846, but they faced hardships, especially with the various Native American tribes in the area who felt they had a prior claim to the region.
Brown and others tried again in 1848, and this time the little settlement took hold. Although it remained tiny throughout the 1850s and 1860s, the community slowly grew in population.
Here's a practical question: how did they get here?
There was no interstate system, and certainly no GPS-guided navigation systems. What route did those earliest settlers take?
One answer can be found in a neat book given to me recently by my friends Jon and Sandy Wolfmueller of Wolfmueller's Books. "Kerrville, Texas: a social and economic history," written by Frank R. Gilliland of Center Point in 1951. The book was Mr. Gilliland's master's thesis, a part of his work as a student at Stephen F. Austin State College.
"Most of the early settlers," Gilliland writes, "followed one of two routes as they moved into what is now Kerr County. Many of them, the German immigrants and Americans from the older Southern states, came by boat on the Mississippi River and across the Gulf of Mexico to the coast of Texas, landing at old Indianola, or Powder Horn as it was sometimes called, which until the tropical storms of 1875 and 1886 completely destroyed the town, rivaled Galveston as the chief Texas seaport. From Indianola these people in their wagons followed the trail across the Victoria prairie to San Antonio and then on up the river valleys to form the settlements at New Braunfels, Fredericksburg, Comfort, Kerrville, and Bandera. The hill country settlements continued to haul freight by ox-team to and from Indianola for thirty-five or forty years. It took a week or more each way to make the trip driving the slow-moving oxen, carrying down produce for sale and returning with supplies from the eastern markets, according to Robert C. Saner and Sam Glenn, Sr., who as young men made the trip often.
"Other settlers from the older states of Tennessee and Missouri came overland through Arkansas to East Texas and along El Camino Real from Nacogdoches to San Antonio and then up the Guadalupe valley. Many of these people lived for a year or two in Arkansas before coming to Texas.
"These early roads, although far from scientific perfection, were the forerunners of the great highway systems that now crisscross the entire country. There were wisely located, in the opinion of engineers today. They paralleled the streams and ran through the valleys, but at the same time they were placed near the hillsides, avoiding gullies and wash-outs from high water. At that time no farms or ranches were fenced, and the road were laid out along the best routes with no consideration for property rights. Later for a time the roads were changed closer to the river front for the convenience of the settlers and to avoid cutting through fields being put into cultivation, but the modern highways have been moved again to the higher ground, following very closely the first roads opened in this section."
I agree with the theory that those early German and American settlers followed the routes of the Spanish colonists, who, in turn, likely followed the routes taken by Native American groups for centuries.
Until next week, all the best.

Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who can get lost even while using a GPS navigation system. This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times September 3, 2016.

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