Sunday, February 5, 2017

History from a cloudless sky

How much does the weather affect the course of history?
I'm not talking about the sudden rainstorm which forces Lulu's seventh birthday party to be moved inside. Lulu, of course, has felt a change in her personal history and the weather's effect has marred her fun. (Lulu's parents will definitely feel history has changed when all the party goers start running around inside the house.)
I'm not even talking about a sudden change in weather which altered a famous battle. Nor am I talking about weather which claimed the life of a leader, or of icebergs sinking famous ships.
I'm talking about the rhythm of the seasons, the cycles of clouds and sunshine, the dew and frost typical of a place. Plain old boring weather.
I've been reading "The Texas Rangers" by Walter Prescott Webb partly because so many of our early male settlers spent some time as Texas Rangers. Both Joseph A. Tivy and Charles A. Schreiner were Texas Rangers. There are more than 30 Texas Rangers buried in the Center Point cemetery alone, including a pioneer historian who had served as a Ranger, Andrew Jackson Sowell. So understanding more about the early Texas Rangers might help me better understand Kerr County in its early days.
In the first pages of the very first chapter, Webb makes a suggestion I'd never considered.
I'd read elsewhere about his 98th meridian theory -- that, in Texas, a plantation economy was not practical west of that line. To the east there is plenty of rainfall; to the west, a scarcity of rain. Because of this fact Texas was unlike many of the southern states in that its economy was not based largely on plantation agriculture and the exploitation of slave labor.
While that does not remove the wrongs of slavery from our state's history, it does suggest rainfall (or lack thereof) affected the history of our area.
The new thing I learned in the first few pages of "The Texas Rangers" was this idea of a dividing line along the 98th meridian (west) impacted the history of Kerr County for much more than just the period before the civil war. Its effect preceded the creation of Kerr County, and even preceded written history here.
Kerr County is closer to the 99th meridian than the 98th; we're farther west, hence drier than counties to the east.
Here's Webb, talking about the land of Texas:
"The 98th meridian separates the Eastern Woodland from the Western Plains; it separates East Texas from West Texas." Elsewhere he describes a trip upriver from the mouth of the Colorado River to its source, traveling east to west, starting in a "heavily timbered and well-watered country," crossing a level prairie region, and then ending in the high plains.
Anyone who's traveled IH 10 from here toward Houston can see the dramatic changes in landscape, from rocky hills to flat, soggy woodlands. And traveling west along IH10 toward Fort Stockton will show a transition from rocky hills to a semi-arid desert.
Consider, then, how these different environments would have impacted the various Native American tribes present in Texas around the time Mexico was losing its control here. Many of those tribes living in the eastern part of the state tended to be agricultural, even farmers. They had villages fixed in one location. Many (but not all) of these tribes were peaceful and cooperated with settlers.
Those living in the western part of the state had a much different way of living. Resources were scarce, and competition for those resources was fierce. The tribes were nomadic, and were not farmers. There was often constant conflict between different tribes, and seldom were these people of the plains cooperative with settlers. It was among these tribes the early settlers of Kerr County found themselves.
How much of the differences between these two types of tribes, the woodland tribes and the plains tribes, could be attributed to weather? Probably more than we suspect.
Until next week, all the best.

Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who can remember times when months and months passed between rainfalls here. This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times February 4, 2017.  Titles by Walter Prescott Webb and Andrew Jackson Sowell are available from Wolfmueller's Books in Kerrville.

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