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Clay Coppedge

Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Forgotten founder of Dallas
Warren Angus Ferris

by Clay Coppedge

If history was always just and accurate to the last drop we would know a man named Warren Angus Ferris as the father and founder of Dallas, but we might have something called the Warwick-Fort Worth Metroplex. The Warwick Cowboys doesn't have the same ring to modern ears, but it could've happened and probably would have if not for a drought.

Warren Angus Ferris, born in upstate New York in 1810, left home for St. Louis when he was 18, eventually signing on with the American Fur Company as a trapper and fur trader. He provided us with the first written descriptions of Old Faithful and the other geysers in what is now Yellowstone National Park, and he left behind a journal that's the gold standard for scholars studying the Rocky Mountain frontier.

In 1837, he met up in Texas with his younger brother Charles, who had joined the fledgling republic's volunteer army in 1835. Warren, who had just drawn what turned out to be an astonishingly accurate map of the Yellowstone Country from memory, became the state's official surveyor of Nacogdoches County, a virtually unexplored wilderness stretching west to the Trinity River.

Various tribes had lived in that country for centuries, and they didn't encourage visitors, especially those using strange instruments to take land away their land. Ferris, a veteran of many Indian battles in the Rockies, took 60 well-armed men with him, splitting them into two divisions to look for trouble every which way. They traveled light, lived off the land and keep their powder dry.

Though not as well-known as his Rocky Mountain journals, Ferris also kept a record of his Texas experiences, which Susanne Starling details in her 1998 biography of Warren Ferris, "Land is the Cry!: Warren Angus Ferris, Pioneer Texas Surveyor and Founder of Dallas County."

Here's how Ferris described present-day Dallas County in the 1830s:

"Everywhere deer, turkeys and prairie chickens were as thick as ants on a hill, with bear, panthers, wolves and wildcats keeping in the daytime to the river and creek bottoms, but after dark issuing forth to ravage the plains and startle the night with uncouth shadows, and hideous screaming and howling. I saw in the picturesque regions there much of the wild soul-stirring scenes with which I had been so familiar in the Mountains.

"Thousands of buffalo and wild horses were everywhere to be met with. Deer and turkeys always in view and occasional bear would sometimes cross our path. Wolves and buzzards became our familiar acquaintances and in the river we found abundance of fish from minnows to 8 footers. The prairies are boundless and present a most beautiful appearance being extremely fertile and crowned with flowers of every hue."

Ferris also did some freelance surveying for a land speculator named William P. King. The two picked out a nice spot on the Trinity River for a new town they planned to call Warwick, but a drought put an end to the plan and the town.

Since the law forbade surveyors from buying the land they surveyed, Ferris got some land in what is now the Forest Hills section of Dallas in the name of his half-brother, Joshua Lovejoy.

There he built a gristmill, raised a dozen children with his second wife and was one of the first cotton farmers in North Texas.

Two years after Ferris surveyed the area, in 1839, John Neely Bryan, a former Tennessee lawyer then working as a merchant and town planner in Fort Smith, Arkansas, found a bluff overlooking a ford on the Trinity River and hurried back to Fort Smith to let his friends know he'd found something special.

Bryan was back in Texas in 1841, accompanied only by his friend and Cherokee guide Ned, a horse named Neshoa (Walking Wolf), a bear-dog named Tubby and a packhorse. Bryan dug into the bluff and used his tent to complete a crude dugout shelter. He chose the spot he did because he was sure it would be a stopping point for steamboats traveling the Trinity River - and it was.

"One can't argue with Bryan; the Trinity has been navigated twice since then - and both boats stopped where he said they would," the late Texas writer and historian A.C. Greene once cracked. As for why Dallas is named Dallas and not, say, Bryan, we don't rightly know. Frank Cockrell, a Dallas pioneer, said Bryan told him "the town was named for my friend Dallas."

Cockrell and many others have always assumed Bryan was talking about George Mifflin Dallas, who served as James C. Polk's vice-president from 1845-49. That makes sense when we consider that Polk and Dallas campaigned on admitting Texas to the Union, and that Polk County was named for President Polk, and Dallas County was formed on the same day as Polk County in 1846.

But Bryan was already calling his little frontier town Dallas in 1842, when George M. Dallas was little known outside of his native Pennsylvania. So what gives? Several plausible theories are out there, but we still don't know for sure and we probably never will.

As for Warren Angus Ferris, the city bulldozed and paved the cemetery where he's buried, which is either fitting, ironic or disturbing, depending on your view of such travesties.

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" March 4, 2017 column

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