From The Arms Of God To The Trinity River: Texas’ Ancient Interfluvial Hell

Turkey VultureI was in a terrible mood when I woke up, but I plowed on. I overnighted in an interstate hotel, one of those terrible specimens of an automobile based society: tidy, but dirty, water too soft to wash the soap off and a strange lingering smell between week old beer and stale cigars. I had to backtrack from Brookshire to San Felipe on IH-10. This, aside from a stretch on IH-35 from Cotulla to Laredo would be the only time I spent on the interstate. Sanchez had some interesting comments about San Felipe:

“The village . . . Consists, at present, of forty or fifty wooden houses on the western bank of the large river known as Rio de los Brazos de Dios, but the houses are not arranged systematically so as to form streets; but on the contrary, lie in an irregular and desultory manner.”

This remains true. While DeWitt’s town, Gonzales, thrived, San Felipe hasn’t changed in 170 years. The general store looks like it was closed thirty years ago. There are no regular patterns to the streets. The town doesn’t have, nor does it ever looked as if it had, a town center, or square. It’s looks more like urban sprawl than anything else. Stephen F. Austin was many things, but a city planner he was not.

Sanchez was stuck here for several days, due to “several parts of the wagons” that needed repairing, but what really caught my eye from Sanchez’ diary was this passage:

“It was with much regret we noticed the river begin to rise as is customary this time of the year. The water rose considerably next day, and the stream began to bring down enormous tree trunks, pulled down from its wood covered banks.”

Berlandier, the French naturalist attached to the Border Commission was even more explicit, watching the river rise more than ten feet in an hour. Texas is noted for its flash floods, but this is impressive, ripping trunks right off the bank? When you consider what the Brazos looks like today, in light of our falling water table and drought, seeing what Berlandier and Sanchez did had to be impressive. So impressive, it kept them from crossing the Brazos for several days and then only with much difficulty, but no loss of life.

They crossed the Brazos on May 11, 1828. They didn’t reach the Trinity River until May 25. By comparison they left Laredo on February 20 and reached San Antonio 9 days later on March 1. (1828 was a leap year.) The distance from Laredo to San Antonio is three times the distance from San Felipe to the Trinity River crossing of  Paso Tomas, now known as Robbins Ford, where Highway 21 crosses the river just north of Midway, Texas.

The hell Sanchez and his men endured on this march is hard to fathom today. What was once a writhing, hostile mass of undrained swampland is now rolling prairies, cleared for ranching and farming. The creeks, due to the drought, are low too. Daily tribulations marching through fetid snake infested swamps with poison ivy everywhere taxes my imaginative powers. Some days they only marched a league or two. In old Spanish a league is the amount an unencumbered man can march in one hour, usually about 2.3 imperial miles. But it wasn’t only men who suffered, the pack animals did as well. Sanchez writes:

“Our beasts of burden not being used to this climate suffered a great deal because of bad forage. . . The ground was so full of water, and there were so many mud holes, that is was necessary for the soldiers to pull out the carriages and the horses by hand almost at every step because they both sank so deep in the mud.”

Lack of fodder was not the only silent enemy they encountered. As Sanchez wrote on May 17:

“In the morning Mr. Berlandier and John, the cook, were sick with fever.”

It might be hard to image this area of Texas was once a giant wetland, a swamp of malaria-bearing mosquitos from San Felipe to Nacogdoches. When they reached the Trinity so many men were febrile that General Teran ordered all but 10 members of the Border Commission to return to San Antonio. Sanchez, General Teran and eight soldiers would continue alone. With this decision any mapping of the border between the United States and Mexico was doomed.

Although the Border Commission was ultimately a failure, my attempts to walk in Sanchez’ footsteps would prove successful. After crossing at Tomas’ Ford on the Trinity traces of Sanchez began appearing everywhere. I knew it was only a matter a time until I literally walked in his footsteps and saw what he saw.

I sped down Highway 21 smiling, the sour mood of the morning evaporating in the piney woods of East Texas. Serendipity was just around the corner.

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