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Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Trammel's Trace

by Clay Coppedge

All roads did not lead to Texas in the early 1800s. The early travelers coming here from the north were on their own because there wasn't a route into Texas from that direction until Nicholas Trammell came along and forged what we know today as Trammel's Trace in East Texas. Originally used as a horse trail, it ran from Nacogdoches to various points in Texas and Arkansas along the Red River.

The man for whom the trail is named was born in a small settlement on the Duck River in Tennessee in 1780, four years before his father died in a battle with Cherokees. The kith and kin who brought young Nicholas up were trackers, traders and surveyors who knew their way around the wilderness. They were a restless lot, always on the move, generally heading south and west.

Most of what we might know about Trammell, not all of it good, are things we don't know at all. We know he was in Arkansas by 1808 and that he laid claim on a piece of land situated on the White River crossing of the Southwest Trail to St. Louis, Missouri. He opened the trail as far as the Ouachita River, but he kept moving until he got to Nacogdoches.

Trammel's Trace started (or ended) at what is now East Main Street in Nacogdoches and took North Street through what is now Mount Enterprise, then north between current Rusk and Panola Counties and across the Sabine River near Tatum. From there the road jogged north through Marshall and Jefferson, crossing the Sulphur River at Stephenson's and Epperson's Ferry.

Trammel's Trace (it is nearly always spelled with one l though his name bears two) was a horse trail at first because Trammell used it to smuggle horses through the Neutral Ground to Nacogdoches and across the Sabine River for sale in the U.S. Trammell probably got them in trade with the various local tribes that were always stealing horses from settlers and other tribes for fun and profit, but mostly for fun.

That made Trammell guilty by association. One of the bad names people called Trammell was "horse thief." "Slave stealer" was another one. Historians in both Texas and Arkansas stress the point that no evidence of these particular crimes committed by Trammell appear in the official records. However, we're pretty sure Trammell was a gambling man who liked to bet on the ponies.

Trammell spent most of his time on the Trace in and around the Neutral Ground, a piece of land that Louisiana and Texas decided to leave alone while they tussled over a border between the two states. Since neither country had jurisdiction, the Neutral Ground became a haven for outlaws, fugitives and outcasts from the wider world beyond. It was the perfect setting for highway robbery.

After service in the War of 1812, Trammel returned to the area and cut a trail for settlers in the Neutral Ground who were trying to escape troops from Fort Smith, Arkansas with orders to evict the settlers. The villages of Jonesborough and Pecan Point owe their existence to the Trammel Trace.

Trammel moved his family to the Nacogdoches area from the upper Red River and bought land from empresario Haden Edwards in 1825. He operated a ferry on the Trinity River crossing of the El Camino Real, or Old San Antonio Road, until a man who claimed the Mexican government had already awarded him the tract contested the transaction. Similar difficulties across the region resulted in the Freedonian Rebellion, pitting old settlers against new. Trammel hit the road back to Arkansas and set himself up as a trader, tavern keeper and man of mystery. By then he had learned to appreciate the value of a low profile.

During the Mexican War, the old trailblazer and man of mystery led 10 companies of Arkansas volunteers south to fight. Later, he returned to Texas with his family to settle in the Guadalupe River country he saw on his way to Mexico. He lived there the rest of his life and died in Gonzales County in 1856.

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" February 3, 2018 column

Historical Marker - Spring Park, 3rd St. Hughes Springs
Trammell's Trace
Entered Cass County at Epperson's Ferry. Continued south and west in an arc, passing through Chalybeate Springs (Hughes Springs). This 1813 pioneer trail originated in St. Louis and linked the "Southwest Trail" with the King's Highway to Mexico. It was laid out by Nicholas Trammell (1780-1852).

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    Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

  • Milt Hinkle, the South America Kid and aerial bulldogger 1-13-18
  • Mackenzie Trail 1-2-18
  • Chasing Villa 12-16-17
  • Art Deco on the Plains 12-1-17
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