Saturday, December 11, 2010

This Week in Texas Methodist History December 12

Fourth Session of Texas Annual Conference Convenes at Robinson’s December 13, 1843

December 1843 must have been a very rainy month. The rains were so heavy that we have two travel accounts highlighting the difficulties faced by attendees of the fourth session of the Texas Annual Conference. Those accounts provide interesting insights into transportation patterns in the Republic of Texas and how physical geography impacted those patterns.

Robinson’s Settlement, eight miles south of Huntsville, was to be the site of annual conference. Getting there was the problem. The presiding bishop was James O. Andrew whose status as a slave owning bishop would become a main topic of contention just six months later at the MEC General Conference in New York City. Andrew arrived in Galveston by sea and took a steamboat to Houston. He and his travelling companions, Thomas Summers and Charles Shearn, had a decision to make. There were two possible routes. The most comfortable would be a steamboat back down Buffalo Bayou to Galveston Bay, then up the Trinity River past Liberty, Cane Island, and assorted plantations in the Trinity bottoms to approximately Riverside where they would disembark and proceed overland to Robinson’s. The other route, which they chose, was overland. They proceeded northwestward approximating present-day Highway 290 to Cypress. It was at Cypress that the difficulties began. Both Little Cypress Creek and Cypress Creek were out of their banks. They had to wait in the company of teamsters who were also stranded.

When they finally were able to cross Cypress Creek, they headed north toward New Kentucky on Spring Creek, and then the San Jacinto River bottoms. The San Jacinto basin in this area is now flooded to create Lake Conroe. In 1843 it presented a formidable obstacle of water, mud, fallen timbers, and other obstacles. Bishop Andrew and his party arrived at Robinson’s cold, wet, and tired by the journey.

Bishop Andrew presided over the conference which reported an increase in membership from 3,738 to 5,016. (Wouldn’t you like a percent increase like that!) Bishop Andrew made the appointments in the five districts in the conference, transferred his travelling companion, Summers, to the Alabama Conference, and started back to Houston to catch the steamboat back to Galveston.

He wanted no part of the San Jacinto bottoms. Instead of retracing his route, he went west into Grimes County and thus “headed” the San Jacinto. When he got back to Cypress, he found the wagon train still waiting to cross the creek.

The other travel account is that given by Homer Thrall. He and his travelling companion, John Wesley Devilbiss, left Robinson’s and headed for their new appointments (Egypt and Gonzales). They went from Robinson’s to Washington and then took the road south toward San Felipe. After passing Robert Alexander’s Cottage Hill and David Ayres’s Centre Hill, they had to cross the Mill Creek bottoms. (As a modern reference, think of about three miles east of Highway 36 between Bellville and Sealy.) Mill Creek at this point has a wide flood plain as it nears the Brazos River. Only seven years earlier, Sam Houston had used this same route as he withdrew his army from San Felipe. Although the soldiers complained about having to slog through the flooded bottoms, they also knew that the heavy vegetation provided a defense against the elite Mexican lancers whose superb equestrian skills were most effective on the open plains. After finally emerging from the Mill Creek bottoms, the two preachers headed to the Colorado River crossing near Columbus. Before they could get there, they had another ordeal, what Thrall called the “quicksand” in the San Bernard River.

Modern day travelers on Interstate Highway 10 passing Columbus will observe the gravel pits along the Colorado River. Those gravels have been transported by the river from the Central Mineral Region (Hill Country) and have proved a valuable construction resource for decades. The San Bernard River is much shorter than the Colorado so its headwaters do not extend to the Hill Country. Rather than depositing gravel, it deposits only sand. The San Bernard crossing between San Felipe and Columbus ordinarily presented little difficulty, but in extremely wet years, the water lubricates the sand grains and makes them incapable of supporting significant weight. That was the situation Thrall and Devilbiss found.

As the flooded Mill Creek bottoms played a role in the Texas Revolution, so did flood conditions along the San Bernard. Texas history buffs will remember that the bulk of the Mexican Army was not defeated at the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 1836. There was an organized Mexican army of 2500 still in the field. Why didn’t they continue the fight? One of the reasons is that they were engulfed in the “sea of mud” between the San Bernard and West Bernard. Gregg Dimmick, a Wharton pediatrician and avocational archeologist, discovered the remains of Mexican equipment and wrote a most interesting account of the Mexican Army’s difficulties very near to where Thrall and Devilbiss were almost eight years later. The Mexican Army was unable to affect an organized withdrawal and reorganize because so many of its carts and draft animals were mired in the mud. Many soldiers were exhausted in their efforts to extricate the equipment.

When one reads accounts of 19th century circuit riders and the travel difficulties they faced, it is most often the lesser streams that presented more problems than the larger rivers. The large rivers such as the Brazos, Colorado, and Trinity all had ferries. The San Bernard, Mill Creek, Yegua Creek, and a host of other secondary and tertiary streams were fordable most of the year so they had no ferries. Those were the streams that caused problems for the circuit riders.

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