DeWitt Colony Life
Future DeWitt Colony 1700-1825. Prior to colonization, the life style and economy of the area of Texas that became the DeWitt Colony was that of New Spain comprised of the rancho, the commodity was wild free ranging longhorns, the worker the vaquero, the mode of transportation the tamed mesteña (mustang) which were seeded from stock left by numerous Spanish settlement expeditions called entradas in the 17th and 18th centuries. The trade of livestock gathered from roundups was regulated and a source of tax income for the government.
Upper South Hunters and Farmers. DeWitt Colonists from the Upper South of the western frontiers of the United States at Old Station on the Lavaca found themselves originally on the coastal plains of Texas equipped with hunting skills and horticultural techniques far different than those for the ranching and livestock industry described above. Noah Smithwick in The Evolution of a State or Recollections of Old Texas Days describes the situation at Old Station where he arrived in Texas before going on to the Austin Colony. Author James T. DeShields relates a letter from Noah Smithwick in 1899:
The author's second great granduncle Nathan Boone Burkett in Early Days in Texas described the scene
Deer, bear, turkey, antelope, buffalo and wild mustangs were abundant and the soil was virgin. Wild game meat, including mustangs, and wild honey provided subsistence until crops and domestic animals could be established. Smithwick, a skilled blacksmith, remarked
Gonzales and surroundings is comprised largely of the Blackland Prairie area of Texas consisting of rolling plain and rich black soil mixed with white sand. The Guadalupe, San Marcos and Lavaca Rivers were fed by numerous tributaries lined with stands of hardwoods, elm, ash, black walnut and live, post and Spanish oak. Softwoods mesquite and cypress dominated the prairies and river bottoms, respectively, interspersed with some pine.
Housing. At first housing was primitive and makeshift being no more than lean-to or dugouts with minimal protection from man, beast or the elements. Dugouts were used where timbers were scarce and consisted of pits in the ground or cave-like structures in the side of a hill. The pit was covered by logs where available and then sealed off with sod. Some settlers applied modifications of the jacal structure illustrated at left adapted from native Tejanos. Jacals were structures pieced together from slender poles, often bamboo-like cane, tied tightly together and chinked with mud or clay or buttressed by whatever materials were available. The thatched roof was made from the same poles and overlayed with materials from simple grass and straw to wider bladed fronds from cactus and palmetto where available. As settlement increased and legal titles to land were issued, cooperative house-raisings among neighbors resulted in improved housing quality comprised of cedar picket houses and most commonly the log cabin. Cedar pickets were essentially more sophisticated and elaborate jacal structures formed by upright cedar poles and covered by boards shaved crudely from timbers. As described by Smithwick, "the rude log cabins, windowless and floorless, have been so often described as the abode of the pioneer, as to require no description here; sufffice it to say that save as a partial protection against rain and sun, they were absolutely devoid of comfort."
Timber was cut by axe and transported by oxen, or dragged by manpower for short distances. Timbers were flattened on four sides by hand with an instrument with a hoe-like blade between two handles called a foot adze. Cabin dimensions varied dependent on available timbers, but usually were one room or in exceptional cases two of about 20 by 20 feet in dimensions with a foot square opening or two for windows. The "log pen" cabin sometimes consisted of unmodified or debarked logs notched at each end to form minimal space between them and chinked with clay and with either clay or crude plank floors if they could be cut. The author's 2nd great granduncle Nathan Boone Burkett says in his memoirs Early Days in Texas:
As settlement progressed, the more elaborate and comfortable "dog-run" house which was built from sawed planks, initially by hand and later by water-driven mills. The simplest dog-run home usually consisted of two rooms connected by a long hall with a long porch on the front. The design was expanded to include more rooms and even a second story over time. This design provided an efficient cooling system from breezes running the length or length and width of the house. The Horace Eggleston House, thought to be one of the finest and most authentic restored dog-run style house in Texas and was the first to receive a medallion for such in the state. It is currently on display in Gonzales and furnished with items of the period by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. It was first built by Eggleston with help of Jesse K. Davis, friends and servants after the return from the Runaway Scrape and is believed to be the oldest surviving structure in Gonzales. According to Glenn Cherry, descendant of Albert A. Cherry, his ancestor purchased the land and the cabin in 1869 from William P. Eggleston:
A dog-run house, built in the 1840's by Prince Carl in New Braunfels, in its natural state and probably more the average is illustrated below from a reunion of early settlers of New Braunfels in 1878. It is these type of structures that were destroyed quickly when torched during the evacuation of Gonzales town in 1836 after the Alamo defeat.
Glass was initially not available and windows were covered with wooden shutters with deer or cowhides for curtains. Iron was scarce, but used when available to bar windows and to reinforce doors. The Bradford home in Matagorda (left) built prior to 1836 is an example of the use of glass on the lookouts from the loft which was less likely to get broken. Roofs were made of sod or wooden shakes which were crude shingles split off in two to three feet lengths and the width of a log. Skilled carpenters provided precision materials as attested by a contract written (spelling unaltered) by the authors 4th great granduncle Andrew Kent:
The meager estate of Andrew Kent recovered after return of his widow and children to their homeplace on the lower Lavaca River from East Texas after the Runaway Scrape reflects the basic tools of the DeWitt Colonists, many of whom were skilled carpenters in addition to farmers and ranchers. Again the observations of Mexican Army Lt. José Enrique de la Peña as the army moved through the abandoned Gonzales area on the way to San Felipe de Austin and San Jacinto in 1836:
Farming. Traditional Spanish philosophy that landowners should share an equal quantity of the area's water was applied in distribution of land in the colony. Consequently tracts fronted on one bank of a river or tributary which avoided monopoly of streams by any one landowner by riparian right which many of the colonists from the east were familiar (see Land Grant maps and Dewitt Colony Rivers). Colonization law provided that settlers were required to occupy or improve land grants within six years of title or the land would revert to the government.
Although wild game and honey was often the basic diet upon arrival, corn production, the grain staple of the colony, was abundant even from the most simple horticultural technique of sticking seeds into the fertile ground with a stick. A substantial corn crop was planted among the cane breaks at Old Station in 1827 which made the colonists reluctant to leave it upon order to relocate to Gonzales. Other grains as wheat, barley and rye were raised in almost insignificant amounts throughout he life of the colony. Flour was at a premium and yeast for leavening even more scarce as described by the author's uncle Nate Burkett:
Because of the largely Upper South background of the majority population and the lack of transport routes for export, plantation scale cotton farming from establishment of the colony through statehood was not of significant economic consequence. Although the Lavaca, Guadalupe and San Antonio Rivers linked the colony to the coast, they were shallow, dotted with sandbars and plagued by blockade with debris with little potential for shipping. However, cotton production on local farms was substantial enough to support multiple gins in the colony and noted by Lt. José Enrique de la Peña as he moved with the Mexican Army toward San Jacinto through the abandoned colony after their victory over the Texans at the Alamo in San Antonio in spring 1836:
Lt. de la Peña estimated the total abandoned corn and cotton stores around Gonzales at more than forty thousand arrobas (one arroba equals about 25 pounds).
Stock Raising. Although largely hunters, woodsmen and farmers from the southern frontiers of the growing United States, the colonists with some lag time adopted the techniques of cattle care and Mexican horsemanship of native Tejanos which they had learned from their Spanish forebears. Expansive ranch lands managed by rancheros and their vaqueros from Bexar to Goliad on the west and the DeLeon Colony to the south influenced the colonists and some extended into the DeWitt empresa. Nine tracts from 1 to 6 leagues were deeded to native Tejanos, although it is unclear to what extent these tracts were developed. Like their Irish counterparts to the south, they learned to use the villa de campo (the Western saddle), the lazo and the reata for roping, the "cutting out" an animal from the herd for branding, the roundup, and the drive (how to watch for signs of a stampede, how to keep the cattle calm and to watch for anything that might upset them). They were taught how to break, train and handle the cow pony from vaqueros. From Tejanos they learned how to battle the droughts and to gather and singe the prickly pear (cactus) for the cattle to eat. These skills were equally useful for defense in respect to raids of aborigines from the northwest and south, as well as later against the despotism of their own adopted government.
Like wild game and mustangs, in the late 1820's wild cattle were abundant from stock left by the early Spanish inspection expeditions or entradas. John J. Linn in his Reminiscences of Fifty Years in Texas relates that when Captain Felipe Roque de la Portilla, father-in-law of empresario James Power, abandoned his ranch eight miles above current Gonzales in 1812:
Stockraising consisted of cattle for both market and home consumption and hogs mostly for home consumption. Both were allowed to range freely and flourished without feed on the land. Brands were apparently registered with the ayuntamiento at about the same time as land titles began to be issued.
Dairy stock and their milk products were not as prevalent, but substantial and in great demand. Lt. de la Peña remarked as Santa Annas army crossed the Guadalupe River into Gonzales on the way to San Jacinto in 1836: "In Gonzales and its surroundings there were hundreds of heads of cattle He [Colonel Gonzalez Pavon] had corralled about three hundred dairy cows ." From what the authors 3rd great grandmother Mary Ann Zumwalt Burket related to a granddaughter who related it to a niece by letter in 1927 about events on their homeplace in 1838 after return from the Runaway Scrape, milk production could be substantial on one farm:
As indicated by the livestock count in the government census of 1828, hog raising was extensive among the upper south immigrants in the colony from the onset. In 1828, the colony had 276 hogs distributed among 14 owners out of a total population of 110 persons enumerated. Lt. de la Peña in spring 1836 fourteen miles outside Gonzales where the army camped on Tejocote Creek on the authors 3rd great grandfather David Burkets league wrote:
Coming back to reality of his situation as head a Mexican sapper unit headed for San Jacinto, Lt. de la Peña described his fantasy of being shot on the site and being buried in such a beautiful vast garden.
There is some evidence of application of goat ranching techniques for predominantly milk product production which was more prevalent in the Bexar-Goliad corridor, the DeLeon Colony and further south toward the Mexican interior.
The Daily Fare. The colonists normal meals consisted of corn bread, pork, beef and wild game with honey with some milk or milk products as a luxury. Fresh corn on the cob, Indian and soft white Mexican variety, was boiled and roasted and stored shelled in large kettles of "lye hominy" for use in the winter. Being from the Upper South, the colonists most likely also dried the hominy, made meal of it and used it to make Georgia "ice cream" or Texas "yoghurt", e.g. white corn hominy grits. There is no doubt that some colonists adopted the applications of corn, dried hominy, beans, onions, garlic and even chili from the native Tejanos they encountered, either locally or on the trail.
Vegetable and poultry farming was probably minimal in the colony and limited to small flocks and plots for home use. Although Lt. de la Peña noted in abandoned Gonzales in 1836 "there was a great abundance of pigs and chickens, which the soldiers went after hungrily," wild turkey was pro bably as common a source of poultry product as domestic fowls as illustrated by the author's 3rd great grandma Mary Ann Zumwalt Burket's description recorded by her granddaughter:
James Ramsay in his description of life during the Battle of Salado comments on the daily fare under those conditions:
Noah Smithwick in Evolution of a State (reprinted in Bolton and Barker, With the Makers of Texas) described the scene at mealtime on a visit to a typical colonist's home:
Condiments and Luxuries. Coffee, tobacco and spirits were present in the colony, in great demand and a necessity or luxury dependent on point of view. All three were largely imported although tobacco and production of spirits was also somewhat a local industry. Colonization law allowed colonists to import most goods duty free for their own use, however, the demand for these commodities and profits to be made from marketing them from onset of the colony caused political troubles for Green DeWitt and the early colonists because of the contraband problem. Imports to the colony came largely from the Gulf Coast, primarily Matagorda Bay, up the Indianola-Austin Road. The premium put on coffee was illustrated by the fact that Lt. George C. Kimbell requisitioned and carried with him 52 pounds of coffee as part of the supplies carried by the Gonzales Rangers as they departed Gonzales on 27 Feb 1836 to relieve the besieged Alamo garrison at San Antonio de Bexar. Another example of the value of coffee in the days after independence in The Republic was expressed by James Ramsay at the Battle of Salado:
Plentiful wild honey substituted for refined sugar although sugar cane was easy to grow in the area as a letter from Mrs. Catherine Barton Lockhart, wife of surveyor Charles Lockhart related to relatives back in Ohio in 1830. Salt came from sea water works on the Gulf Coast at the mouth of the Brazos River.
A letter home by recent arrivals to the McMullen/McGloin colony in San Patricio in 1835 gives insight into the optimism and the needs of colonists in the days prior to subversion of development of the colonies by dictatorship in 1836.
Business and Commerce. Businesses in Gonzales town prior to 1836 were limited to two General Stores, two or three saddle/blacksmith/mechanics shops, a hat factory, two hotels, a boarding house/restaurant, a smoke house and a grogshop or pub. According to letters of Sam Houston and others, there must have been considerable whiskey stores in the town which someone had spiked with arsenic in case the advancing Mexican Army from San Antonio after the Battle of the Alamo was tempted to consume. The whiskey stores were thought to have been part, in addition to gun powder kegs, of the explosions heard by departing settlers when Houstons army burned the town in front of the advancing Mexican Army from San Antonio. There was at least three gins, sawmills or gristmills, the Martin mill on the southern town border and two north of Gonzales noted by Lt. de la Peña. The latter may have been enterprises began between Green DeWitt and Joseph Clements in 1830. More formal service establishments as banks, pharmacies, specialty stores and professional services were notably absent from Gonzales and the DeWitt Colony until into the 1850s. These were carried out by the general activities of the retail and wholesale merchants, mill owners and individuals by barter. Individual goods and services were more prevalent as the medium of exchange than script, however, the extensive records of dollar values put on estates at auction, ferry services and government fees indicates the presence of at least a growing monetary system of exchange. The minutes of the Gonzales Ayuntamientos of 1833 and sketches in the Texas Archives and other literature through 1836 indicate a growing economic activity requiring maintenance of roads, ferries, licensing of merchants, regulation of credit procedures and interest rates and public disturbances.
Social Life. "They were a social people these old Three Hundred, though no one seems to have noted the evidence of it" says Noah Smithwick in Early Days in Texas. Personal accounts of the early days in Texas indicate that opportunities for social interaction and gatherings were particularly valued and effort made to attend and participate over great distances. "The colonists had their amusements of balls and parties, neighborhood gatherings for athletic exercises, fishing, picnics, horse-racing, rifle-shooting, mustang-catching, story-tellings of their trading, surveying, hunting, and Indian expeditions" relates Guy M. Bryan (nephew of Stephen F. Austin) in Mode of Living, Customs, and Perils of the Early Settlers of Texas. Bazil Durbin, John and Betsey Oliver and Jack, a black servant of James Kerr, were on their way from the first Kerr Creek settlement at Gonzales to a fourth of July celebration at Burnhams on the Colorado River when the infant village was attacked, looted and destroyed by Indian vandals in 1826.
Social equality prevailed with participation by black indentures. Smithwick relates a specific wedding party he attended (McNutt to Cartwright) in the Austin Colony which was dependent on black indentures for fiddle music and other improvisions:
There is evidence the colonists especially enjoyed and participated in, perhaps adapted the style, of the fandangoes of their Hispanic neighbors when opportunity arose.
OF DEWITT COLONY TEXAS