New Kerr County History Book Available!

Sunday, September 1, 2019

A journey to Texas in the mid-1850s

Frederick Law Olmsted.  Together with his brother John Hull Olmsted, he explored Texas
in the years just before the Civil War, including a visit to
nearby Sisterdale, Texas, in today's Kendall County.
Image from the National Park Service.
Click on any image below to enlarge.
On Christmas Day, 1853, a pair of young New Englanders, Frederick Law Olmsted and his younger brother John Hull Olmsted, entered Texas on horseback to explore and record their impressions of our state. Frederick Olmsted was the writer of the two, and was filing dispatches with the newspaper which would become the New York Times. Their travels here were the source for his book, “A Journey through Texas; or, a Saddle-Trip on the Southwestern Frontier.” 2ds
The brothers traveled about 2,000 miles in Texas over the next five months.
Their travels here took them from the Piney Woods of East Texas, through the plains, into our hill country, and on to San Antonio, south Texas, and bottomlands near Houston and Galveston.
They even visited our neck of the woods, stopping by the homes of German settlers in New Braunfels and Sisterdale.
Ottomar von Behr,
who settled at Sisterdale.
Image from UTSA
Special Collections
Frederick Olmsted was impressed by the German immigrants, and not only because most of them shared his anti-slavery views. They were industrious, clean, and humble.
After a visit to San Antonio, of which Olmsted had a very favorable view, he and his brother returned to the German settlements in the hill country, including Sisterdale.
“Sisterdale,” Frederick Olmsted writes in his book, “is a settlement of eight or ten farms, about forty miles from San Antonio, upon the Guadalupe, at the junction of the Sister Creek and the crossing of the Fredericksburg road. The farmers are all men of education, and have chosen their residences, the first by chance, the latter by choice, within social distance of one another. Up and down the Guadalupe, within long walking range, are a dozen or twenty more, single men, living in huts or caves, earning a tough livelihood chiefly by splitting shinges.”
(Shingle making was one of the first hill country industries; Kerrville was founded by Joshua Brown, who had a shingle-making camp about where One Schreiner Center stands today, near the intersection of Water and Washington streets.)
Frederick Olmsted was enchanted by the Guadalupe River at Sisterdale.
von Behr's Sisterdale cabin.
Image from UTSA 

Special Collections
“The Guadalupe was even more beautiful here than below, quick and perfectly transparent. I have rarely seen any resort of wood-nymphs more perfect than the bower of cypress branches and vines that overhand the mouth of Sister Creek at the ford near the house. You want a silent canoe to penetrate it; yet would be loth to desecrate its deep beauty. The water of both has a delicate, cool, blue-green color; the rocky banks are clean and inviting; the cypresses rise superbly from the very edge, like ornamental columns. We found, while shooting in the river bottoms, some real monarchs of this species. One of them, which had fallen, was at least fourteen feet in diameter. Its heart, as is frequently the case, was unsound. It is one of the most common trees along the creeks of this region. The wood is similar to that of the pine, but less valuable for the purposes of the lumberman. The trunks of the older trees rise branchless to a great height, having a bark remarkably clean and bright, and a foliage feeble and quivering, like that of the larch.”
Frederick Law Olmsted,
late in life.
From Wikimedia Commons
Perhaps some of the beauty Olmsted saw in Sisterdale informed his later works, including the design for which he’s most famous: Central Park in New York.
Having traveled through rougher sections of Texas, the Olmsted brothers are surprised by the refinement of the German homes, even the rough log cabins. Frederick Olmsted often remarks of meals served on clean table cloths, glass windows, fitted doors that latched, and ample libraries, features he had not found in other parts of our state.
At the home of Ottomar von Behr, in Sisterdale, the brothers observed a Justice Court session, in which the value of dog which had been shot was settled, and all parties reconciled.
In addition to being the justice at the court, von Behr was also a meteorologist and naturalist. He was the second settler at Sisterdale, and gave the community its name. He also established a lending library for his community.
Von Behr’s house was “the very picture of good-nature, science, and back-woods. Romances and philosophies were piled in heaps in a corner of the logs. A dozen guns and rifles, and a Madonna, in oil, after Murillo, filled a blank on the wall. Deer-skins covered the bed, clothes hung about on antlers, snake-skins were stretched to dry upon the bedstead, barometer, whisky, powder-horns, and specimens of Saxony wool occupied the table.
“The dinner was Texan, of corn-bread and frijoles, with coffee, served in tin cups, but the salt was Attic, and the talk was worthy of golden goblets.”
Until next week, all the best.

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Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who has passed through Sisterdale frequently, but who needs to slow down and take a good look someday. This column appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times August 30, 2019.

Did you know I have two books about Kerr County history available?  Both books are available at Wolfmueller's BooksHerring Printing Company, and online by clicking HERE.


  1. I read this book......twice. I had never heard of Olmsted until I read "The Devil in the White City" about the Chicago Worlds Fair where he was mentioned as the man who designed the landscape for the fair and also mentioned that he had previously designed Central Park in New York. By chance, the next book I picked to read was this one. I am now reading "A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States", also by Olmsted. Great reading.

  2. Just read more about Fredrick recently in a Muir book. This post reminds me of my son's first visit to God's country in '13. We stopped near Comfort and he took in the majestic Cypress trees and cool clear river. Thanks for posting.


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