THE HISTORY OF BLANCO COUNTY

BY JEAN COX STANLEY

PART ONE OF TWO PARTS

 

INTRODUCTION:

There are a number of histories written of Blanco County. My purpose in writing this short one is to pass on my knowledge and feelings about the county of my birth. It is my hope that if this history is read by family members they will see it as the story of not just any pioneers, but that of our ancestors. You will find that some of our physical characteristics, vocabulary and speech patterns, as well as some of our strengths and weaknesses come from these early settlers. In reading about these courageous men and women, it is my wish that you will gain respect and admiration for their perseverance and accomplishments. Remember that you are the branches of the family tree and your strength comes from your roots. Some of the things I have written about might seem to contain too much explanation or description. I have read that you should write these papers as if you assume the person reading them has no knowledge of where or what you are talking about. Possibly some great-grandchild in New York City in the year of 2050 might read this. Hence, the superfluous detail.

THE BLANCO PIONEERS AND HOW THEY LIVED

Benjamin Milam received a contract from the Mexican government in 1826 to colonize and settle two hundred families within his grant. Milam’s grant took in that area of the Edwards Plateau lying between the Colorado and Guadalupe rivers included present day Blanco County. These rights were sold several times, and ultimately to the Bering Brothers in London. Nothing further was done with it.

The Ben Milam spoken of is the famous Milam of Texas history. He helped defend Goliad and is known for his words, "Who will follow old Ben Milam?". He was speaking of the battle called the Capture and Storming of Bexar. Milam County, Texas as well as Milam Park in San Antonio was named after Ben Milam .

When the pioneers entered the area, the movement of the frontier was from east to west. This opposed the major drainage systems of the Colorado and Guadalupe rivers and their tributaries which was from west to east through Indianola on the Texas coast.

By the end of the Mexican period of Texas history in 1836, the first known American land surveyors had entered the area that is now Blanco County. They surveyed land grants lying along the Blanco River. The J. L. McCrocklin grant is the oldest grant within the present limits of Blanco County. It was granted by the Mexican government in June, 1835. It is identified as being on the Martin’s Branch of the Blanco River about seven miles east of the present townsite. This is near the area where the Coxes later settled.

It can be said that the history of Blanco County had its real beginning when James H. Callahan, a Texas Ranger and surveyor, camped in the Blanco valley. He was so impressed that he returned seventeen years later with family and friends to settle in the area. The group came from Caldwell County near Luling and settled on the Martin’s fork of the Blanco River. If Captain Callahan had camped in the Blanco valley in the spring, it is understandable that he would want to return there, for in that season there was something new at every turn.

As he entered the Hill Country, the air was cleaner and direr. The countryside was carpeted with wildflowers; such as the bluebonnets, Indian head and paint brush, and other flowering plants. The hills were full of game. In 1854 it was the undisputed domain of the Indian, the bear, the panther and the deer, as well as much small game. Wild turkeys strutted in grandeur along the ridges. Honey bees thrived and honey was in the trees for the taking. "It is paradise", wrote one of the early pioneers.

Years after Callahan and the Coxes came into the area, I sat in our cabin at Blanco following my drive from New Braunfels. I agree with the person who said "It is paradise", but I know some of the Hill Country’s adversities. The pioneers were soon to realize it was not always faultless. In the spring it still had much to offer. The same species of wildflowers bloom in abundance. The trees still have the beautiful "Irish Green" that they have in the early spring. The turkey’s gobble as I arrive at the cabin. Thinking of childhood years, I remember going with my grandfather when he robbed the bees of their honey. He did this by using a smoker that he directed toward the bee in order to stun them. I hid behind a tree at a safe distance in order not to be stung.

Even now, as I sit here writing, I hear the call of the turkeys again. Is it any wonder that I enjoy time spent here? It is a time of renewal.

We can only wonder: how many years will we experience these marvels of nature. When we built our cabin in 1980 and I began spending time as an adult in the Hill Country, there has been an apparent decline in the evidence of wild life. Only occasionally do I hear the call of the turkey or the yelp of the coyote. So what is the problem? Too many people, fire ants and cedar. Perhaps the wildlife still abounds in these hills, but are unseen because of the proliferation of cedar. Should we pull up stakes and move on as my early ancestors would have done or clear the land at great expense? At this writing the Federal government forbids the clear-cutting of mature cedar. If continued, this land will be worth very little as far as productivity is concerned.

One of the things that made the Hill Country so beautiful was its grass. As beautiful as it was, it was a trap—a trap baited with grass. If the pioneer entered the Hill Country in the early spring within the streams were flowing and the grass was green, it was hard to realize it could become an arid zone. Rain could be plentiful for a few years and then the cycle could shift. Hondo Crouch, the much celebrated "Mayor" of Luckenbach, a small community near Blanco , knew how to describe the terrain after a rain. He said, "She’s got her Sunday clothes on." Nature did not always remember to wear her Sunday clothes or use her best manners.

My great-great-grandfather and family came into this area in 1854. Soon there was a great drought. Small streams dried up and cattle died of thirst and starvation. When the rains finally came, there were floods and the creeks and rivers overflowed.

With the introduction of cattle to the area, the grass situation worsened. The cattle were eating the grass that had been holding the thin Hill Country’s soil in place. The bed rocks were the reality. It had taken many centuries to bury them but only a few years to reveal them. As the grass grew sparse, more rocks were exposed. The pioneer now had another problem to contend with—erosion. But even the rocks were put to good use. Fences were built of wood as late as 1859 with cedar the preferred material. Soon the Germans of the area began building fences of flat stones. Entire families labored for months or even years to build stone fences on their farms.

The amount of work involved and the volume of stone moved staggers the imagination. By 1860, it is estimated that several hundred miles of stone fence had been built in Comal County, with many more under construction. A German family in Gillespie County, a neighboring county to Blanco County, had twelve hundred acres enclosed with a stone fence. Closer to home or shall I say closer to family, their comments about fence building came from Sidney Cox, my father’s cousin. Sidney was speaking of his father, John Cox, when he said, "Papa put words together as he put rocks together in making fences. He had an eye for rocks. A feel, I should say, because he was nearly blind. I remember a day that he was building fence and I was learning. ‘Rocks must fit as close as words’, he said as he put a rock in place to see if it would be content. It was a trick he had learned from nature and he had the patience to do it right. He never put a stone where it didn’t want to stay. ‘Work with nature, not against it’, he said, ‘if you want a fence to stand.’"

Great Uncle John Cox, the fence builder, was also the story teller in the family. He spoke much as the respected author, James Thurber, did.

It is hard for the later generations to understand the hardships and inconveniences that the early pioneer had to contend with. The settlers first work was to build cabins for their families in order to keep themselves, food and gunpowder dry. After that, the pioneers prepared to defend themselves and their cattle from the Indians.

A number of Texas Rangers were stationed in Blanco County. Indians were much in evidence, especially the Comanche and several groups of Apaches. Many of the Lipan had died of smallpox brought in by the Europeans. The rough terrain of Blanco County provided an excellent point of rendezvous for raids and defense. Trouble was to continue with the Indians until well after the Civil War. The returning veterans drove the encroaching Indians one hundred miles to the northwest, their pre-war position.

Many schools had to be closed. Men took their weapons with them at all times, even to church. My grandfather, Andrew Sidney Cox, born in 1867, said that he did not remember being bothered by the Indians. However, he did say that on the night of a full moon, known as "Comanche Moon", he and his brothers had to stay awake to watch for them. Many Indian artifacts such as arrowheads, spear points and hatchets have been found along and near the Cove Creek on our place in Blanco County.

After the pioneers had built their cabins and cleared the land for farming, they found that farming was not an easy task in the rocky Hill Country. For two centuries, the American pioneer had been working out a technique for the utilization of the humid region east of the Mississippi River. But in crossing the Mississippi, they were in an environment for which they had no experience. The result was a temporary break down of the machinery and ways of agriculture. East of the Mississippi, civilization stood on three legs—land, water and timber. West of this line it stood on one leg—land. Texas historian, T. R. Fehrenbach says this about the conditions; "Not only did the frontier families have to learn to cope with land, they had to learn to cope with isolation. These were the years when the frontier in Central Texas was terrible in its isolation. Families which moved to this area in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s left civilization far behind. Many who came did not stay, as all did not have the courage and energy." It also took adaptation and some capital. The men were able to adapt to the changeable weather, distances and fear better than the women.

The diaries and letters of the women tell of the loneliness and deprivation that could drive them mad. Noah Smithwick in his book, The Evolution Of A State says, "Men talked hopefully of the future, children reveled in the novelty of the present, but the women bore the burden." One elderly lady said, "Texas was heaven for men and dogs, but hell for women and oxen." Perhaps the men were better able to adapt because they could find some escape in hunting game or in a battle to fight. Fehrenbach has this to say about the Anglo-Texan of 1835; "Texas was drawing men who sought violence like strong drink. If they could not find a war, they were disposed to make one."

In spite of all the hardships, the settlers continued to come. Not long after Captain Callahan and E. C. Hines moved to the Blanco valley and built cabins on opposite sides of the river, others followed. There were so many that real estate entrepreneur, John Pitts laid out a town in about 1855. The name of the town was Pittsburg. In 1858, Blanco County was created and the county seat was located across the river from Pittsburg.

The court met for several years under a tree and later in a log schoolhouse. Later the name of the town was changed from Pittsburg to Blanco. The name Blanco means ‘white’. The town got its name from the river cliffs. The river was named by the Spanish Aguayo expedition which explored Texas in 1720. This expedition gave names to many natural objects. A few of the names survived.

It was not until 1855 that the town of Blanco was incorporated. Comal County included the land that is now Blanco City until Blanco County was organized in 1858. Soon after the establishment of Blanco, the Civil War broke out. This brought on very hard times for many people. Mail was brought in once a week and everyone met the mail wagon. This was a moment of much rejoicing or much sorrow. If there was mail from a loved one, it was a happy time. Bad news, or no news, were sad times indeed.

Other hardships had to be faced also. These were the days when a woman received bulk cotton and rode 10 or fifteen miles to a neighbor’s spinning wheel. There she would spin the thread and weave the cloth on a loom before making a garment. It was also the duty of the women and children to help in the fields with work that the men at war usually did. Many of the former slaves remained loyal and the work carried on would have been impossible without them. My great-grandfather, Andrew J. Cox, and his brother, Aaron W. Cox were in the war, was well as a brother-in-law to the Coxes. All were from Blanco County. My paternal grandmother had both her father and grandfather from the Wagner family in the Civil War. They were living in Tennessee at the time but moved to the Blanco area soon after the war.

During and after the Civil War, progress depended on freight. Most of the provisions used in the Blanco area were hauled from Austin, San Antonio, San Marcos or New Braunfels. Great grandfather Andrew J. Cox did some of this freighting. It was something that had to be done and it was a quick way to get cash in the years when crops failed.

This freighting was usually done with six mules, two abreast. Often oxen were used. I have been told that my great-grandfather did much of the freighting after the Civil War to Columbus, T. On one return trip, his wagon broke down where my brother Howard now lives, near Blanco. This great-grandfather left his wagon, went home and did no more freighting. I suppose he had one too many breakdowns.

The early farmers living in the Blanco area took their grain to the New Braunfels mills. There they bought tobacco, sugar, gunpowder and other supplies needed but not grown or produced on the farm. Family stories related that great-grandfather Andrew J. Cox bought several bolts of cloth at a time in New Braunfels. He took the material home for his wife to make clothing for their large family and perhaps sheets, curtains, tablecloths, etc.

During the Civil War, many cattle browsed the range with little or no care. When the soldiers returned, there were many unbranded cattle. The men who were the most expert with the rope and branding iron got more than their share of the cattle.

History books are full of talk of cattle drives as well as many other interesting life struggles. Animals other than cattle had to get to market. Less has been written about these drives. Turkeys were driven to market as were hogs. One hog drive that was of special interest to me was told in a story by Herman Fischer, a friend of my grandfather, Sidney Cox. Mr. Fischer has this to say about this particular hog drive: "In the 1880’s, there was a heavy acorn crop and hogs fattened early. Five or six hundred were gathered from the woods and driven from Llano to Blanco City, Fischer Store, and over the Devil’s Backbone to San Marcos. The hogs were lead by a wagon loaded with corn. An old man sat in the back of the wagon, called to the hogs and scattered corn to keep them moving."

By 1870 cotton was being grown in Blanco County. Eli C. Hines was one of the very early settlers to raise sheep and cotton in Blanco County. The Cox brothers, my great-grandfather and his brother grew cotton by this time. The cotton had to be hauled in seed form to New Braunfels. There it was ginned. Some years later a number of cotton gins were built in and around the Blanco area. About 1900 a cotton gin was established on the site that would later become our home place. A book found in the Blanco library states that a gin valued at $1,200 was on Cox property. As children, my brothers, sisters and I enjoyed playing around the parts of the gin that still stood.

Hines, the early grower of cotton and raiser of sheep is quoted as saying; "Some years floats in grease. The year 1878 was that kind of year. Grass was fine. All kinds of grain was good and cotton just outdid itself." Perhaps the Cox brothers made a good profit that year also.

Progress continued in Blanco County. The courthouse was erected in Blanco City in 1885. It was designed by noted architect, F. M. Ruffini, who crowned its relatively unadorned square limestone body with an elaborate mansard roof. The courthouse was Blanco’s pride and joy. It served its intended function for only five years. Three elections were held in the county and it was voted that a new county seat would be at Johnson City, a town fourteen miles north of Blanco. This move caused many hard feelings between the two towns, including a killing.

A great uncle, Aaron Cox, known as "Judge", was sheriff of Blanco County at this time. Blanco citizens schemed for years after the Johnson City move to reestablish Blanco as the county seat, but all efforts failed.

The old courthouse has served many a purpose. It has served as a bank, newspaper office, hospital, opera house, school, union hall, museum, restaurant, etc. Few T towns can claim a vacant courthouse which became so useful for so long. There is a continual effort by the Blanco Preservation Society to save it.

As soon as population density allowed, the settlers pooled their resources and established churches, schools and newspapers. Even before Blanco City was created the Methodist Church was founded. The Christian Church was organized in 1857 and the Baptist Church in 1859.

I recently found numerous records which indicated that my father, mother and grandmother Cox had been active in the Methodist Church in Blanco. The present church was built in 1883. This is the church in which my husband and I were married on February 8, 1948. My parents were married by a Methodist minister in my mother’s parents Blanco home on June 20, 1914.

My great-grandfather, Josiah Cox, was a Methodist minister. In the early times this meant that he rode a horse to different homes or places of worship on Sundays. James Wagner, another great-great-grandfather was a Baptist minister. He performed the marriage ceremony for my grandmother Mary E. Wagner and grandfather Andrew Sidney Cox.

CONTINUE TO PART TWO: CLICK HERE