Today’s Houston is a vast urban place, stretching some eighty miles from its northernmost suburbs in the Conroe area to Texas City in the south, and some fifty miles from the western limits of Katy on its west to Baytown on its east. In the mid-nineteenth century, however, Houston was a relatively small place, a dot in a vast frontier. Histories of Houston are just that, and largely confine themselves to the area within the city limits of the day. This leaves forgotten the history of vast formerly rural areas that fell beneath the city's twentieth century urban sprawl. One such area is that of upper Buffalo Bayou, the settlement of which began well before Houston was even a collection of tents on the prairie.
This was once a vast tallgrass prairie, its expanse broken only by the virgin forests that surrounded the bayous. Early travelers marveled at the empty beauty of the prairie. Native Americans were only infrequent visitors to this part of western Harris County by the time Anglo settlement began.
The large colonial-era settlements of the 1820s consisted mainly of plantations along the Brazos and Colorado Rivers, which used large numbers of enslaved African Americans to raise cotton. That cotton needed an export route, and after some experimentation it became clear that a wagon road to Harrisburg (and later Houston) was the most efficient way to get cotton bales to a port. This became the San Felipe Trail, built by Stephen F. Austin's colony in 1830. By the late 1850s, sixty thousand bales per year arrived in Houston on ox wagons.
Frontier farms and travelers inns sprang up along the trail, at natural camping sites like Piney Point and at dangerous bayou crossings like Wheaton's Ford. The low life expectancy of men on the frontier meant that most of these frontier inns were run by widows, including Elizabeth Wheaton, Harriet George, Mary Silliman and Teresa Wolf. An ox wagon trip to San Felipe on the Brazos River took four days in good weather.
After the Texas Revolution, hundreds of German immigrants spread out along the swampy prairie north of Buffalo Bayou, founding churches, schools, and pioneer settlements at White Oak, Spring Branch, and Bear Creek. Most arrived with few possessions, and faced malaria, yellow fever, and uncertain crops.
In 1851, a late-arriving planter named Agur T. Morse founded a large cotton and timber plantation along the south bank of the bayou named Pleasant Bend, which covered much if not all of modern River Oaks, Tanglewood, Post Oak/Uptown, and West University Place.That plantation and hundreds of others came to an abrupt end after a long and bloody Civil War in which nearly all able-bodied Anglo and German men in this rural area took part. Families were torn apart when brothers and cousins found themselves on opposite sides, or when breadwinners did not return.
Emancipation brought two hundred thousand freed slaves on Brazos and Colorado River plantations onto the roads, seeking shelter and a better life. Although a significant number found their way to Houston, the majority became sharecroppers on rural small farms, and many of those eventually purchased their own land. Three African American settlements with churches and schools along the San Felipe Trail in upper Buffalo bayou date from this time.
A forgotten part of Houston history involves the post-war cattle drives that led northward to the Chisholm Trail from cattle pens (with associated slaughterhouses) located in the modern Shepherd Drive/West Gray area. Thousands of longhorn cattle were brought in from the unfenced open range that reached southwestward from that area from 1868 to 1874, using African American cowboys who had learned their trade on antebellum ranches.
Children and grandchildren of the early pioneers inherited a fin de siècle rural paradise of fertile small farms, while new railroads erased distances to urban Houston. This rural life was brought to an abrupt end in the mid-twentieth century, as urban sprawl of Greater Houston overcame the area, plowing beets and potatoes under for shopping center parking lots, densely-packed suburban estates, and flood control projects. Farm families and their social institutions were pushed aside in the feeding frenzy of development, and their stories largely forgotten even by urban historians.
Pleasant Bend is a long, lingering amble through this lost world, utilizing years of research of State and Harris County archives, family diaries and journals, Federal census data, and period newspaper accounts. It is sumptuously illustrated with 270 photographs, drawings, charts, and then-and-now maps. It represents the first comprehensive history of the pioneer beginnings of what has become the residential heart of Houston.
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Recording a forgotten pioneer world......