From boom to backwater by Scot McFarlane

Wonderful books have been written about the history of Texas rivers and even many of its creeks, though no books have been written about one of the state's major rivers, yes the Trinity!  To the west of the Trinity on the Brazos there's Kenna Lang Archer's recent Unruly Waters and to the east Thad Sitton's Backwoodsmen covers the history of the Neches. 

Sitton's book, Backwoodsmen : Stockmen and Hunters along a Big Thicket River Valley, describes a world that had long been divorced from the get-rich mentality that powered Texas' growth.  From the start of Anglo settlement the Neches was a backwoods, backwater area where subsistence rather than commercial growth proved the rule, but unlike the Neches, the larger Trinity did not start out that way.  

As I've been writing the actual dissertation this summer, I have realized the extent to which the Trinity was not peripheral but central to Texas' economic growth in the antebellum period.  The Trinity was one of the major plantation regions in the state.  It's likely/possible that planters forced more slaves to plantations along the Trinity than any other area in Texas in the five years leading up the Civil War.  By the 1850s the Trinity was the place where planters wanted to live--with its navigable river (albeit not always so) and its abundant fertile lands.  While the Neches was always a backwater, it's all the more striking that the Trinity went from being so important to the state's growth to becoming a backwater by the 1890s.  To a large extent this change happens because of the river.  Explaining why and how this happens, especially in relation to the rise of an urban Texas centered around Dallas, will be the much of the work of the dissertation.  

Apologies for the sporadic postings, but I have been busy writing the actual dissertation as the impending birth of my son has given me the benefit of a clear and non-negotiable deadline!  

The Trinity River Archives by Scot McFarlane

    During my return from a research trip to UT's Briscoe Center last week, I made a list of all of the archives in which I found sources for my dissertation on the Trinity River.  I thought the list would come out to around 30 different archives, but the actual list came out to 37 locations.  At some places I only gathered one or two documents whereas at archives like SMU's DeGolyer Library or the Texas State Archives I have collected hundred of images.  The list of archives does not include all of the sites I visited, for example I went to the National Archives in D.C. two years ago to study the Freedmen's Bureau records, but have since found all of these sources on familysearch, which is far superior to microfilm.  Recognizing the number of archives I have visited has made me realize that I need to start writing soon.  Funding permitting, I will take one more research trip this summer.  There are one or two new sites I need to visit and several archives that I need to return to because the time period for this project has expanded since I began my research. Also, I need to return to spend more time at the Rosenberg Library in Galveston because on my last visit I had not realized how terrible the traffic is in the Galveston/Houston area and ended up only have about two hours there before I had to leave to catch my flight home!  People talk about the expense of global history, but even this river history, within a single albeit, large state, can be quite costly.  Funding from individual libraries has been helpful, however research funding not tied to a particular library such as the East Texas Historical Association's Otto Lock grant has allowed me to visit so many of these smaller unfunded sites.  

    Other than my project's scope, another major change has been the quantity of materials that have been digitized.  There are likely several collections that I visited in person which have since been digitized.  The single best resource has been the Portal To Texas History-that site is the reason my computer's mouse had to be replaced and I am still not finished reviewing all of their sources, especially their newspaper collections.  These online resources have saved me money and allowed me to research more efficiently.  I know some people really enjoy being in the archives all day, but I would much rather spend a limited two-three hour period of time doing research each day, which is exactly what all these online resources have made possible.  

    How did I decide to visit all of these archives?  The finding aid's and Texas' TARO (Texas Archival Resources Online) have been useful, but a word of caution to other Texas researchers that a significant portion of holdings are not on TARO even if the archive is listed in TARO, and can only be found on internal catalogs--hence the reason to always make contact with the archivists who will point you in the right direction as long as your project is not hopelessly broad.  I have been mining the footnotes of all the relevant secondary sources.  One such example is the WPA slave narratives.  I thought I had searched through all of these interviews at the outset of my research.  Only when I found several WPA quotes in other history books about the Trinity did I realize I was missing something.  It turns out that the majority of the interviews from Texas are listed as "supplement" and you will not find them if you download the main set of interviews from Library of Congress/Gutenberg.  Maybe you already knew this, but no one told me, and my project would have been much poorer had I not made this discovery.  

    The reason I visited the manuscript collection at Cornell was because of a citation found in Mike Campbell's An Empire for Slavery.  Buried within a much larger collection relating to a Cornell Professor are a series of letters written by Otis Wheeler and his daughter Lizzie.  How Campbell knew to look through this collection I have no idea.  Wheeler owned a plantation along the Trinity and he describes life along the Trinity, how floods could destroy crops or how fish and river bottom hogs provided food for the plantation.  Wheeler had moved to Texas from Lincoln, Massachusetts where his mother still lived.  He often wrote about his distaste for the abolitionist sentiments in New England, but he spoke fondly of his old friend Summer Bemis.  In 1860 Wheeler wrote his mother, that Bemis, whom he had not seen in twenty years, should come visit, however "if he is an abolitionist any other country would suit him better than this."  Wheeler learned in short order about the rise of abolition in the United States.  One of my good friends from Concord Massachusetts (the town adjacent to Lincoln) is a direct descendant of Summer Bemis so I guess it's a small world in the past and the present.  

 

List of Archives used:  

Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin

The Perry-Castañeda Library, The University of Texas at Austin

Texas State Library and Archives, Austin, TX

Sam Houston Regional Library Texas State Archives, Liberty, TX

Houston County Historical Commission, Crockett, TX

East Texas Research Center, Stephen F. Austin College, Nacogdoches, TX

The History Center, Diboll, TX

Palestine Public Library, Palestine, TX

DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, TX

Bridwell Library, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, TX

Dallas History & Archives Division, Dallas Public Library, Dallas, TX

Special Collections at University of North Texas, Denton, TX

Portal to Texas History, the Internets!/ UNT

Mary Couts Burnett Library, Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, TX

The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX

Texas Baptist Historical Collection, Waco, TX

Trinity County Historical Commission, Groveton, TX

Walker County Historical Commission, Huntsville, TX

Rosenberg Library, Galveston, TX

Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library, Houston, TX

Polk County Historical Commission, Livingston, TX

San Jacinto County Historical Commission, Coldspring, TX

Albert and Ethel Herzstein Library, San Jacinto Museum of History, La Porte, TX

Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, New York, NY 

Leon County Genealogical Society, Centerville, TX

Texas Prison Museum, Huntsville, TX

Thomason Room Special Collections, Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, TX

Archives of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas, Livingston, TX

Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

The National Archives at Fort Worth, National Archives, Fort Worth, TX

Environmental Research Library, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Austin, TX

General Land Office Archives, Austin, TX

Trinity River Authority Archives, Arlington, TX

Trinity River Authority Lake Livingston Archives, Livingston, TX

Crockett Public Library, Crockett, TX

 

And a few photos from past trips:

 High water Trinity in summer 2015

High water Trinity in summer 2015

 Visit to Joppa in January 2016

Visit to Joppa in January 2016

 Trinity River Steamboat model at Sam Houston Regional Library in Liberty

Trinity River Steamboat model at Sam Houston Regional Library in Liberty

 Semi-petrified wood?  Trinity River at low water.

Semi-petrified wood?  Trinity River at low water.

 Summer 2017 at National Wildlife Refuge near Sam Houston Regional Library on the Trinity

Summer 2017 at National Wildlife Refuge near Sam Houston Regional Library on the Trinity

 Enthusiastic audience at Livingston Public Library for my presentation on Trinity River History, summer 2017. 

Enthusiastic audience at Livingston Public Library for my presentation on Trinity River History, summer 2017. 

 Summer 2017 at Rosenwald School in Coldspring, site of another Trinity River presentation.

Summer 2017 at Rosenwald School in Coldspring, site of another Trinity River presentation.

 The gorges during my fall 2017 visit to Cornell. 

The gorges during my fall 2017 visit to Cornell. 

 And just for fun, a picture of a cabbage that I purchased for three dollars on my drive back from the Cornell Archives, as you can see the cabbage is pretty much the same size as Alsea!

And just for fun, a picture of a cabbage that I purchased for three dollars on my drive back from the Cornell Archives, as you can see the cabbage is pretty much the same size as Alsea!

You can't tame the Trinity! What about the dissertation? by Scot McFarlane

A few weeks ago I was asked what would be the perfect evidence for my study of the Trinity River and I realized that I had already found it. This past summer after I gave a presentation on the Trinity in Polk County, several audience members shared stories about the river in addition to asking me questions about my research.  One comment revealed a key theme of the river and people’s relationship to it.  This person described how an old friend had once told him that “you can’t tame the Trinity!”  

“You can’t tame the Trinity!" succinctly covers a widespread and long-running understanding of the Trinity held by many East Texans.  They understood that neither they nor any outsiders, no matter their capital and expertise, could stop the river from flooding, shifting channels, or doing whatever else it wanted to do. Yet I also think this quote suggests the ways that East Texans understood the river as an allegory for their own lives: You can’t tame the Trinity or East Texas.  

By the 1950s East Texas had endured a sustained decline in its agricultural economy that was not fully replaced by scattered oil derricks or a handful of industrial sites.  This decline contrasted with a booming Dallas that sent its sewage and worse pollution downstream to East Texas, but this economic stagnation did not translate into a complete loss of political power.  Neither the river nor the people died out or became wholly subservient to the rising power coming from the North.  In 1973, when Polk County voters helped to defeat the Trinity River Authority’s plan for turning the Trinity into a shipping canal, they sent a message about themselves and their river.  

Such evidence may be commonplace, indeed many other people have likely uttered the exact same words: “you can’ tame…” not only about the Trinity but a great number of other rivers as well.  Though there are plenty of particulars about the Trinity and East Texas, that’s also the point–many people have long seen their own rivers and floodplains as ungovernable spaces that are best left alone and a significant number East Texans felt similarly about their own communities!    

Murder and Floods on the Trinity by Scot McFarlane

After I flew into Dallas for my latest research trip, my cab driver’s response to my mention of the Trinity River was: “Oh you mean the bodies?”  Whatever renaissance American rivers may be experiencing, the Trinity’s reputation remains infamous.  I have a few theories about when and why this reputation developed, but in part it is simply a result of the fact that people did meet their deaths down by the river.  One of the first readers of my blog sent me documentation of her family’s history with the Trinity River when her great-grandmother was murdered next to the river on May 20, 1923 at age twenty.  What happened, and what does this event tell us about the Trinity River?  

Unfortunately most of the older police files have not been archived in the Dallas Municipal Archives, but the newspaper reports confirmed the details of Geraldine Harris’s death.  She had come to the Trinity River with friends for a fishing trip near the California Crossing in what is now Northwest Dallas.  Early that morning another member of the fishing party “had fired two shots from a pistol at some bushes where he heard a rustling sound which he believed to have been made by a wolf or some other wild animal.” (Dallas Morning News, May 21, 1923)  The other term used in the newspaper articles was that the assailant had fired at a “booger” in the bushes.  Not until all three men present had armed themselves did they investigate what was in the bushes.  Mrs. Harris's husband discovered his wife’s body, “‘My God! You’ve killed my wife!’ Harris exclaimed as he rushed to the prostrate form of Mrs. Harris.” (Dallas Times Herald, May 21, 1923)  

One of the detectives assigned to the case was Will Fritz, who forty years later led the investigation into the assassination of JFK.  Despite the strong detective work there is no indication that anyone ended up serving time for this murder.  According to the reports, the shooter feared a wild animal rather than another human, and he took a shoot-first ask questions later approach.  The Trinity would have been a relatively undeveloped area, and it is unclear whether the shooter had a reason to fear the animals along the river or if he had heard tales of these wild animals.  In The Making of a Lynching Culture Bill Carrigan argues that the state’s reputation for violence made new settlers more likely to take part in a culture of violence.  There may be some specific material reasons why so many murders happened along the Trinity, but a bad reputation and an itchy trigger finger also played their role in this tragedy. 

On May 21, 1923 the Trinity made two separate headlines, the first reads: “Jurors Probing Death of Woman Bullet Victim,” but directly below that story the next headline reads, “Heavy Rains May Cause Trinity To Overflow Again.”  While the placement of these two stories next to each other may be both conscious and coincidental, it shows the ways that the physical actions of the river and its reputation are completely intertwined. How I put the Trinity’s relationship to Texas culture into words, is one of the many questions I will be trying to answer over the years to come.  

Time Scales and Fish Scales by Scot McFarlane

    The alligator gar is a prehistoric fish that lives in our modern world.  The biggest gar specimens in the world can be found on the Trinity River.  They depend on flooding to spawn and yet can live for years with low flows and low oxygen levels since they come to the surface to breathe air.  Gar are tough, but their long lifespans means that they are vulnerable to human depredation.  In the early 20th century one can read about various attempts to drive the gar to extinction in Texas through the use of hoop nets or even “gar machines” specially designed for slaughtering gar.  The main reason for this was that the gar were not a desired sport species, the primary one being (and still being) bass.  Gar were seen as an enemy to bass and were eliminated at all costs.  Of course a largemouth bass is not going to thrive in the Trinity anyways, this is habitat more friendly to buffalo or catfish, and now the gar are themselves a highly sought-after game fish.  They have gone from a fish that provided a source of sustenance, to one that was condemned by a large portion of society, to being well, cool.  Thus the gar has survived the Trinity’s nadir, a mere nothing in the scheme of the lifespan of the river and the gar.  Yet even if the Trinity were dramatically cleaned up and sources of toxic pollution removed from the river, the big old gar would remain full of all kinds of dangerous chemicals, giving fishers one more reason not to take and eat a gar.  

    One of the journals I have collected comes from a woman who lived near the Trinity River in the 19th century.  She enjoyed fishing and especially catching buffalo fish.  Often historians like to present the shift in fishing and hunting as dramatic, in which subsistence hunters were pushed off the land and a new “ethical” and elitist type of sport hunting was enforced.  Yet I think this diary is a useful example in presenting a perspective in which fun and subsistence could be tied together.  Catching the buffalo may not have been a do or die kind of experience, but it was nonetheless an important source of protein for this woman.  It reminds me of one of the people I interviewed for my documentary on the Neches River, John Avant, who lived off the land in the Neches bottoms.  While describing how he “grew a garden for a living” and had chickens and fished, he let out a spontaneous laugh.  Perhaps his joy also comes from the fact that he recognized the other options available to him in the 20th century might not have been so joyful, but I think this appreciation existed in the 19th century. 

    Some fish like the sand bass also migrate.  The Trinity is a big river and such migrations might serve to connect distant parts of the river with each other.  There are no salmon on the Trinity and it seems like maybe the fish of the Trinity have the inverse relationship as the salmon do on their rivers.  In places like Alaska salmon are a vital species, not only fattening up a whole array of animals like the grizzly bear, but fertilizing the land and providing nutrients for the landscape.  On the Trinity in contrast, the fish depend on the land.  When the river floods fish like the catfish go on feeding frenzies, engorging themselves on all of the life within the bottom.  The earth does not depend on the fish to enrich it but the fish depend on the land.  That richness comes from the river itself, and I’m still trying to figure out how to frame it: the Trinity is muddy it is made up of both water and dirt, and as many river people have learned, when is it counterproductive to draw too sharp a line between land and water?  What do the fish think?  

What about ferries? by Scot McFarlane

There are two kinds of boats that dominate the historical record of the Trinity River: Steamboats and Ferries.  Steamboats makeup the bulk of the collection.  If you go to a Texas archive and look under the card catalogue for “Trinity River” there’s a good chance that half of the materials you find will be about steamboats.  Like railroads, it turns out that many people are obsessed with steamboats.  I don’t share this enthusiasm for steam power, though in future posts I will discuss the other possibilities for interpreting this substantial source base.  While not nearly as evident in the archives, I have found quite a bit of information on ferries as well.  When I lived and worked in Oregon I used to take the ferry across the Willamette River to work every morning, but that was mostly a choice since there are plenty of bridges that cross most rivers.  Rivers used to be constant barriers for travelers who were lucky if they could find a ferryman to get them across and save them a swim.  Several years ago at a conference, another historian described how he had read or heard from Don Pisani that we should not think of rivers as bisecting land, but of the land bisecting rivers.  I haven’t been able to track down the exact quote, but it really captures a reality for many Texans–fortunately for them however, there were quite a few ferrymen in the 19th century.  

But what was life like for these ferrymen?  When I was a regular on the ferry, many ferry operators mentioned how bored they were much of the time when only twenty cars would use the ferry all day.  Yet many of these 19th century ferrymen had far fewer patrons on most days.  Presumably they would have had other activities to occupy them whether that was whittling things, fishing, or who knows what.  The coins they collected could have been quite substantial, and some traveler accounts describe how they were not carrying the fare on them and were cursed out by the ferryman.  The labor of the ferrymen would also have varied with the river.  During low-water periods the span of the river might be only ten yards, while at high water times people describe ferries taking them across for five miles.  Would they have charged a flat rate?  Sometimes, especially in periods of armed conflict and flooding, the ferryman could get quite backed up, with people waiting for a week to be carried across the Trinity.  

From what I can tell, the life of ferrymen was anything but boring.  And it could also be quite dangerous.  Lawsuits were brought against the ferrymen questioning their skills.  And people also attacked, or even murdered ferrymen.  Perhaps because they were relatively cash-rich individuals?  In one case a ferryman on the Trinity was murdered by an axe-wielding assailant who was hired to kill the ferryman so that another relative could inherit the ferryman’s property.  

And what did the ferrymen think about the river?  Without it they would have lost a relatively reliable source of income, at least until the bridges were built.  As far as I can tell the first bridge across the river was built in Dallas in the 1870s.  The ferryman is a bit like the farmer from Faulkner’s The Reiver’s who has his mudhole or the many “mud farmers” of the East Texas oil field who charged passage or dug people out, except in this case the ferrymen didn’t have to build a river… 

-Scot McFarlane

The Trinity River and Freedom by Scot McFarlane

What is freedom?  For the inmates who live in the prison units along the Trinity River bottomlands in Tennessee Colony the answer is easy: Everything beyond the last razor wire fence.  Yet unless they are serving a life-sentence, the passing of time represents a better opportunity at freedom compared with escape into the bottoms.  If wet, the blackland mud will collect on their feet, weighing them down and leaving a trail of alien prints in the mud that even a hyposmic hound could follow.  As they near the river they will enter the checkerboard woods, so named because these blocks of field and forest resemble a checkerboard when viewed from above.  Originally cut with the purpose of making it easy for posted sentries to shoot escaping inmates as they crossed from one block of woods to another, the extensive edge habitat and lines of sight have made it the most productive section of a hunting preserve whose blinds tower over the white-tailed deer and wild boar flushed by the panicked escapees.

Beginning in the 1820s, much of the Texas landscape represented a similarly fraught geography of possibility and danger for those who attempted to escape their enslavement.  The end of the Civil War and the ratification of the thirteenth amendment, which abolished slavery, might appear to level the geography of freedom.  Yet violence only increased in Texas’ postwar years, and in the years after emancipation freedmen sometimes turned to the floodplains of rivers such as the Trinity in search of freedom.  The thirteenth amendment itself contained its own Trojan horse on the question of freedom. It reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convinced, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Vagrancy laws and rising incarceration rates suggest how Texas sheriffs used the thirteenth amendment’s prison loophole to limit the gains of emancipation.  The thirteenth amendment at once enabled and restricted freedom.  A river runs through these tensions, which are made visible on the Trinity River and the plantations, runaway refuges, prisons, and homesteads along its course.

Those freedmen who settled along the river discovered that by breaking down the divide between land and water, by accepting the rhythm of flooding, they could elevate the divide between freedom and slavery and build independent communities.  Flooding regulated the kind of crops that could be cultivated, the kind of people who would plant them, and the kind of people who might try and control their labor.  Flooding also made rich land, albeit a bit slippery when wet, and cracked like thousands of broken pots when dry. Accepting certain limitations also meant unleashing the tremendous potential of the alluvium and the landscape itself.

Much of the wildlife, including the enormous scaled alligator gar that breathes air, depend on flooding to survive, only spawning when the river breaches its own levees.  Understanding the gar as ecological and historical also explains why some people who lived along the river did not see flooding as an aberration or a problem.  Like the gar, these river people viewed flooding as a necessary, inevitable process that they must incorporate into their routine, and which inevitably changed their perspective of the world.

However by the beginning of the 20th century, the gar had received the label of trash fish, sometimes left nailed to a tree where it continued to breathe air even as it died of desiccation, and the river had largely ceased to be a region of refuge.  The gar and river people never disappeared, but their importance diminished, becoming tokens of prehistory or precapitalism.  If anything remains unchanged from the 19th century today it is the always-changing Trinity, which still floods and shifts its banks, more readily than ever as the vast impervious surfaces of the Dallas metropolitan area channel water directly from the sky into the river.  Millions of people live with the river’s floodwaters, but they no longer adapt to them.  The Trinity no longer directs the shapes of their thoughts or their ideology.  The river is no longer a home.

When the river functioned as refuge, its most important quality was distance, the way its forest, mud, and floods kept sheriffs looking to fill work crews out of their homes.  In Texas, the violence only intensified starting in and after 1865 and freedmen looked for places where they could keep that violence at a distance.  So they did not initially adapt to the river by choice, and they only discovered the benefits of letting fears of flooding dissipate because they had bigger fears to live with.  In the Works Progress Administration’s interviews with former slaves in the 1930s, many interviewees spoke fondly of their time along the Trinity, how their families and communities flourished in such places.  One man spoke of how they often carried guns to protect themselves from the panthers that lived in the bottoms, but he left unsaid how the necessity of arming themselves against the panthers could also protect his family against the dangers that lurked beyond the river. 

Panthers still roam what’s left of the woods along the Trinity–if they’re lucky, the prison escapees might see a mountain lion, which would not attack, but would nonetheless frighten them, raise the hairs on the backs of their necks, and make them feel alive.  Running the last yards to the riverbank they’d find a deep, wide, and muddy channel, full of floating debris: sticks, footballs, oil jugs, and soda bottles.  There they would have to choose to swim in the swift water with the alligator gar and alligators or keep running along the bank.  However unfamiliar and frightening the landscape might be, for a moment at least, they would be free.