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.