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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Texas Tales"


by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Most people driving along U.S. 71 from Austin to Columbus don't spend any time thinking about the highway bridges that afford them the ability to cross streams and rivers without getting wet.

But making it from one side of a river to the other used to be a significant undertaking in Texas, at least during times of ample rainfall and the resulting heavy stream flow.

On a horse he named Comanche, a Harvard-educated physician journeyed in the Republic of Texas - and forded or floated across many of its significant streams -- in 1839.

Despite his training in New England, Dr. Frederic B. Page seemed to have spent more time people-watching and taking in the landscape of the three-year-old nation than in practicing medicine. His healing skills may have been primitive by modern standards, but nothing lacked in his power of observation.

Six years after his visit, with Texas about to become the 28th state of the Union, Page reconstructed his travels in a 166-page book he called "Prairiedom: Rambles and Scrambles in Texas or New Estremadura." In the fashion of the times, he opted not to use his real name, claiming in the book only that it had been written by "a Suthron."

He crossed the Sabine from Louisiana into Texas, traveling from San Augustine to Nacogdoches to Houston and Galveston. Back in Houston, he went through San Felipe to Columbus to Bastrop, Austin and San Antonio. He returned to Houston by way of Goliad and Texana, now a submerged ghost town in Jackson County.

Riding from the newly selected capital city back to Houston, Page found a large party of Lipan Apaches camped near the crude road to Bastrop. He counted more than 50 buffalo hide wigwams.

Page described the Lipans as "a friendly tribe that early espoused the cause of Texas, and the only one permitted by the government after the revolution to remain within the settlements."

The doctor spent the night at a nearby "house of entertainment," presumably a combination inn and tavern. The chief and some of his fellow tribesmen joined the party that evening, boasting of their fighting prowess against their sworn enemies, the Comanches.

"In the morning they decamped quite early, their wigwams being dismantled and packed by the squaws, upon horses and mules, of which they had plenty, and the invalids and children mounted upon top," Page wrote.

In a heavy rain, the Lipans overtook Page and his party on the way to Bastrop. The Lipans put their tents back up and settled in for the night on the bank of Colorado.

"The following day," Page continued, "we had an opportunity to witness the crossing of the whole tribe to the opposite shore-one of the most exciting and novel scenes we had ever witnessed, and which remains impressed upon our mental vision as one of the most amusing and eventful we saw in our rambles in the prairie land."

The previous day's rain had swollen the river, and now the wind had swung around to the north, indicating a coming drop in temperature as the cold front that had triggered the precipitation moved through the area.

As Page watched, the Lipans took down their wigwams and folded the hides to form boats.

"Everything belong to the tribe," he went on, "was carefully packed within [the hide boats]-war implements, and provisions, and light cooking utensils, all were there. Their buffalo meat and venison, their bows and arrows, rifles and muskets, powder and ball, furs and peltries, pipes and tobacco, paints and beads, bear's oil and whisky, were all safely stored in these novel canoes which floated like a nautilus upon the stream."

Indian girls and women, darting "like dolphins through the water" piloted the hide boats to the opposite bank of the river. "No sooner was one of these frail barks landed than the Indian girls plunged again into the stream, and regardless of our presence…swam across for another load."

The girls and boys also swam each animal in their remuda across the river. "Now and then a vicious mustang would cast his rider into the water, when he would seize him directly by the mane or tail and thus be borne again to land, or if he failed to secure his hold he darted through the water like a flying fish, and stemming the current as well as he was able, floated downward and land some hundred yards below."

The river crossing, something now accomplished by cars and trucks in a matter of seconds, took most of the day for the Indians.
© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" - April 21, 2006 column

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