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  • Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

    The Poison Spring

    by Mike Cox
    Mike Cox

    Some kindhearted traveler had taken the time to carve the letter “P” into several of the trees around the spring, but who would know for sure what that meant?

    At some point in the early days of settlement in East Texas, a family of new arrivals camped at the spring. All drank from it. The next day, unfortunately for them, everyone who had drunk from the spring got sick and several of them died.

    Not long after that, the story went, someone driving a good-sized herd of cattle watered his beeves at the same spring. Within hours, all of the cow brutes that had drunk from its waters lay dead, their bellies soon beginning to bloat.

    “On the road leading from Jefferson to Daingerfield there is a spring known by the old settlers as ‘the poison spring,’” the Texas Republican reported on June 12, 1852.

    The newspaper, reprinting a story that had appeared earlier in the Jefferson Herald, told the story of the emigrants who had died after drinkign from the spring “several years ago” as well as the story of the cattle die-off at the water hole.

    “The water runs slowly from a sink or gulch,” the newspaper continued, “and its color indicates that it is tinctured with a mineral, which at particular stages of the water and during a dry season operates as a poison. During the wet season, and when the water runs freely, it is said to be harmless.”

    Noting that while poison water holes were often reported in 19th century Texas newspapers they just as often proved bogus, Jacques D. Bagur reprinted the clipping, which ran under a short heading that said “The Poison Spring,” in his encylopedic study of pre-Civil War Jefferson, “Antebellum Jefferson Texas.”

    In West Texas, the Pecos River, while definitely non-poisonous, was known by travelers and cattleman for its terrible water. Thirsty horses, drinking copiously from the river after a long, dry journey, often died on the spot. Their accumulated skulls lead to one of the West’s most colorful place names, Horsehead Crossing.

    In the days before the development of water treatment and distribution systems, the words “poison water hole” or “poison well” were scary indeed.

    Indeed, for as long as mankind has had the ability to tell and pass along stories, springs and wells have provided a free-flowing source of legend and lore. Water could satisfy thirst, water could heal or water could kill.

    “Springs and well of water have, in all lands and in all ages, been greatly valued,” the author of “Yorkshire Legends and Traditions” wrote in 1888, “and in some regarded with a feeling of veneration little, if at all, short of worship.”

    Pagans on the British Isle believed spirits dwelled in wells and therefore could exercise their evil powers over the water. As one book on Scottish folklore noted:

    “The well of St. Chad, at Lichfield…causes ague to anyone drinking its water. Even its connection with the saint has not removed its hurtful qualities. In west Highland…allusion is made to poison wells, and such are even yet regarded with a certain amount of fear. In the article on the parish of Kilsyth in the "Old Statistical Account of Scotland," it is stated that Kittyfrist Well, beside the road leading over the hill to Stirling, was believed to be noxious. Successive wayfarers, when tired and heated by their climb up hill, may have drunk injudiciously of the cold water, and thus the superstition may have originated.”

    American Indians also believed evil spirits hung out in springs. Some Plains Indians believed that bad spirits living in water holes shot invisible arrows into unsuspecting drinkers, causing them to get sick and sometimes die. Some believed it to be particularly bad medicine to drink from a spring at night.

    While many a death in early Texas occurred as a result of someone drinking bad water, the concept of a naturally occurring poison spring or well is more in the realm of folklore than reality.

    Anyone who knows anything about survival in the wild knows that water can look and smell fine but still be full of disease-causing pathogens. An animal carcass upstream can lead to trouble and stagnant water can become a rich environment for bad bugs. And with industrialization came pollution.

    Bottom line, if you ever get stuck out in the middle of nowhere without water and come across a spring or even running water, boil any water you take from it before drinking unless you want to risk getting shot by invisible arrows.

    © Mike Cox -
    March 15, 2012 column
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