Part 2: The First Hill Country Settlers

Continued from Part 1…

But most of all, to the men who moved there first, the Hill Country was beautiful because of the grass. Land was something these men and their families had to live off, and that was why the grass of the Hill Country filled their dreams.

The numbers of the settlers who reached as far as the Hill Country were very few. In 1837, after becoming independent from Mexico, the Republic of Texas had a total population of 40,000. But when Texas was opened up to settlement from the United States, the population grew rapidly to about 600,000 by the time of the Civil War, in 1860.

After the Death large_2038_CattleTrail1905-4-3-600
A cattle drive through the Texas Hill Country

Nearly all of these new settlers,  however, stopped in the rich blackland farm country of East Texas, near Louisiana and Arkansas. Only a very thin trickle of immigrants made their way out to the edge of the Hill Country, to places like Austin. At this time, this was the true American frontier. And of those few who came so far, to the very edge of civilization, only a very, very few — just thousands at most — found the courage to climb the hills and enter what seemed to be a new paradise to the west.

But the Hill Country, beautiful as it might appear, was really a trap, and the trap was baited with that beautiful grass. The grass had been a long time growing; the soil in which it grew was rich, but it was also very thin, a fragile layer spread over the limestone rocks. It was vulnerablePlow to wind and rain, and especially vulnerable because it lay on hillsides, not level ground. The very hills that made the Hill Country so picturesque also made it a country it which it was difficult for the soil to hold. The grass of the Hill Country was beautiful and rich because it had had centuries to grow and build up, centuries in which nothing had disturbed it. It was rich only because it was virgin soil, never touched by a plow. But once the plows came, it could not be restored to its previous condition.

The Hill Country, beautiful though it might be, was also a trap baited with water. It is now known and recognized that the climate of the Texas Hill Country is, in official meteorological jargon, semi-arid. The annual rainfall in the whole region fluctuates dramatically. One year the rainfall might be 40 or 50 inches, and the next only 10 inches.

In the 1850s and ’60s more settlers arrived for the first time in the Hill Country, after it had had years of above-average rains, and the land had the appearance of a Garden of Eden, at least, a Texas-style Garden of Eden. But then the rains stopped, for one year and then another. The new settlers knew it should rain again, for they had seen it. But the creeks dried up, and the grass withered, and the crops of cotton and corn shriveled in the fields, and still there was no rain.

More than a hundred years later, the climate of the Hill Country still repeated such cycles. One of my earliest memories was at the age of three or four, living in San Saba in the heart of the Hill Country — the years (the early 1950s) of the great seven-year drought — one Texas author who lived through it called it “The Time It Never Rained”. I remember my parents sitting at the dinner table, night after night, asking themselves, “When will it rain again?” And I remember my mother warning me, “George, be careful playing on the back lot!” The gaping cracks in the dry, barren ground were so deep and wide that a little boy chasing a ball could literally fall in one, and twist an ankle, or worse.

A Group Comanche Warriors

The promise of a new and fruitful region, with land for the taking, lured some of the most desperate, and idealistic, settlers from the United States. On and on they pressed, to the edge of civilization and beyond, into the heart of the Hill Country, the home of the Comanches and Apaches — nomadic Indians fearful for their own way of life, utterly ruthless warriors, and masters of various torture techniques. The border of civilization ebbed and flowed during these years, and at times many settlers were caught on the wrong side of the Indian frontier. The years 1858 and 1859 came to be known as the “killing years”; several hundred settlers (no one knows for sure just how many) died in Indian massacres, often suffering horribly before finally being killed.

The legendary longhorn

A couple of generations later, those who survived the Hill Country knew how to make a living there: by running wide-ranging herds of cattle (the tough and hardy Longhorns, at first) on vast tracts of land, by herding sheep and goats on the steep hills, and by growing peaches and grapes (but not cotton or grain) in the fields. But fortunes were lost, and lives destroyed, while the next generations learned the lessons from those who came first!

Note: Parts of this section as well as the previous section rely on the first volume of the richly detailed history, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Path to Power, by Robert A. Caro. Mr. Caro, in turn, relied on personal narratives from many members of the Johnson family, including my grandmother Jessie Hatcher, for details of the family history and Hill Country life in the early days of Texas settlement.

To be continued.

This post is part of a series authored by brother George Booker. Click here to see all previous posts in the series.

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